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BEYOND CHEESE AND CRACKERS

Updated on March 7, 2016

Cheese and wine go together as beautifully as friends and wine, hence the delightful abundance of this successful trio at a recent tasting at Aspens Signature Steaks in Marietta. Guests gathered to sample local cheeses crafted by Thomasville's Sweet Grass Dairy, which were served with international wines provided by United Distributors. Aspens’ Executive Chef John Sweeney did all the pairings, and he, along with chefs from sister restaurants MADE Kitchen & Cocktails and Theo’s Brother’s Bakery, whipped up a variety of goodies to complement the evening’s repast. It was the perfect primer on cheese and the many accoutrements that help to make it the perfect party in your mouth.

“As with any dish, you’re looking for balance and mouthfeel,” explains Sweeney about how to approach cheese as a dish and not just an ingredient served atop crackers. “Mouthfeel makes you want more; balance makes your mouth happy.” Serving cheese with harmonious components can bridge the gap from blah to bang! The cheese’s character dictates whether you serve it with nuts, berries, homemade lavash, Marcona almonds—the sky’s the limit. “When I’m doing a stinky blue cheese, for instance, I make sure there’s some acid to cut the fat and something sweet to offset the pungency, like a local honey or my dark cherry compote. (Sweeney likes the versatility of cheeses made with goat milk, which can successfully cozy up to a wide range of ingredients.

Obvious cheese plate pairings include pâté as well as cured meats which, for the chef “add a whole different flavor profile. Cheese and meat go together like peas and carrots.” And don’t overlook the wonderful vinegar-laced world of chow-chow, olives and pickles of any sort. “Homemade pickled vegetables are perfect for an appetizer cheese. And since I think vinegar goes with cheese, I like to make a balsamic or apple cider vinegar reduction and drizzle or smear it on the plate or present it in a little bowl,” elaborates the chef. Head for compotes, honeys, jams and jellies for a sweeter hit. One of Sweeney’s favorite companions for cheese is smoked nuts, which deliver a delicious umami flavor. “It’s inexplicable, but the reaction in your mouth makes you want more—like bacon. It makes you want to go back for a second bite.”

Adding wine to the mix only adds to the fun. The chef advises not to put too many restrictions on your wine selection. “Just make sure the pairing is balanced,” he says. “Look at the flavors of the ingredients—acidity, sweetness, fat—and try to hit all the flavors on the tongue. Strong, slightly bitter cheeses are complemented by a lighter, sweeter wine. For instance, I love a Sauvignon Blanc with a stinky cheese; the citric nature cuts the pungency but it’s also smooth and playful.”

If you’re entertaining with just cheese, meat and the like, the chef says it’s best to serve a nice medium body, medium acidity, drinkable wine that doesn’t need food to go with it. “That way guests can walk around and talk and pick at the cheese board. Neither the cheese nor the wine is the star of the show—the people are,” says Sweeney. “If the cheese is a course, the flavor profile matters the most. A lot of people use cheese plates as a dessert. Some of the sweeter wines go better in that scenario, such as a port, a Gewürztraminer, or a light, playful wine,” he says. Of course, sometimes just the basics are the way to go. “The greatest thing in the world is Brie scooped up with pieces of hot baguette. It’s such an awesome thing that I just keep it simple.” Say cheese!

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