Hooked on Cheese: Pairings for Early Fall

Raymond Hook certanily knows how to throw a cheese party

Now this is a spread that's impossible to dislike. 

On Labor Day, I invited two new friends over to my place for cheese, snacks, and wine. I’d met Annie and Jimmy through non-cheese avenues, but they’d heard about my background as a cheesemonger and specialist and were eager to try cheese “Raymond-style.” They admitted they didn’t know a lot about artisan cheese but were up for learning more: my kind of folks.

Instead of throwing Époisses de Bourgogne at them (unwise!), I decided on an assortment of proven winners: spectacular cheeses that are easy to eat and ideal for the early fall season.

For my first dish, I started with simple asparagus hot off the grill topped with finely grated Lamb Chopper, the sheep’s milk gouda-style cheese made in Holland for Cypress Grove Chevre. I then added a dollop of my friend Brad’s freshly made tomato jam. We paired the dish with Acorn Rosato, a Russian River blush wine suggested by my dear friend Taylor who lives out that way. The asparagus was a bit smoky, which paired well with the creamy, mild richness of the cheese and the tang of the tomato. A perfect beginning!

For our next course I went in a different direction. I’d just been to the farmers market and couldn’t resist picking up a few late-summer heirloom tomatoes: a giant red Abe Lincoln and a knobby yellow Brandywine. I sliced up the Abe and some mozzarella di bufala from my favorite Italian market, then diced the Brandywine with some fresh-from-the-maker’s-hands burrata. I tore up fresh basil and drizzled top-shelf olive oil and balsamic vinegar on both plates. Neither Annie nor Jimmy could decide which of the two mélanges was their favorite, and frankly, neither could I.

For the following dish, I took a homegrown angle: I knew both Annie and Jimmie were from Maryland so I sought out a cheese from their home state. I went with the Merry Goat Round from Fire Fly Farms, which is made in the style of a camembert (white bloomy rind with a creamy interior). I tore open some fresh brown figs as a pairing. Once I tried out the combo, I realized I had a bottle of the perfect wine to pull the two taste profiles together: Kramer Vineyards’ 2012 Müller-Thurgau Estate Wine from Willamette Valley, Oregon. The brightness of the wine brought out the sweetness of the figs and was balanced and tempered by the cheese.

As we were winding down the evening, I still had one pairing I just had to share. I think Swiss Mountain cheeses are best at the beginning of fall, so I pulled out a nice chunk of L’Etivaz – the “non-Gruyere” Swiss cheese. I cut a ripe peach and opened a Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA. That big chunk of cheese was quickly whittled down to a nub, proof that I’d made the right decision when I insisted on one last course.

My guests loved all my early-fall cheese picks. It makes me proud to welcome them to the cheese-lovers club – especially right before “food season” officially begins.


You can follow Raymond's cheese adventures on Facebook, Twitter and his website. Additional reporting by Madeleine James.