By Anthony Gismondi
Wine and cheese – is there a phrase with more baggage, not to mention a strong dose of yesterday? We decided to ask two local cheese shops how they stay fresh for their customers and what is in the works for the holidays.
Les Amis du Fromage cheese shop owners Alice and Allison Spurrell are among the very best cheesemongers in the country and we are fortunate to have them in Vancouver at two locations (1752 West Second Ave. and 843 East Hastings St. No less beloved is Greco’s Specialty Foods (6888 King George Blvd.) in Surrey.
At Greco’s, owner Chris Duxbury stays focused on his customers. You can sample before you buy and you can consult as long as you wish. The current rage is country-centric cheese platters; exploring French or Italian cheeses is popular. The staff has extensive product knowledge and they are more than happy to suggest possible wine matches.
Duxbury says their accoutrements are as popular as cheese, so no matter what kind of platter he puts together – among his favourites are soft triple cream French cheeses and a Greek specialty hard cheese Kefalograviera – it’s his signature artichoke and Asiago dip and Mediterranean olive tapenade with roasted onions that his customers can’t live without.
As busy as Alison is at this time of the year, we asked her to help us put together a cheese event we can fit into our Christmas entertaining plans. Her first piece of advice is, “You need to plan ahead to take the stress out of entertaining.”
Interestingly it doesn’t seem to matter whether you are planning a large party, or just a casual get together with a few neighbours. When you are planning your cheese platter, “Start with how many people are coming to an event. If it is a large crowd respect the tastes of everyone, which means serving a more varied selection; with a smaller group three or four types of cheese might be plenty.”
The next question is what else is being served? Are you having a lot of other rich food? In this case Spurrell suggests lighter choices might be better. If it is a desert party then “perhaps nothing too strong or it will clash with the flavours of your pastries.”
Will cheese be a part of a buffet or served after a sit-down dinner? “All of these factors determine what types and how many cheeses might be fun for your group.”
As for the plate itself, here are some serving tips from a real pro. “Pay attention to the way you have arranged your cheese on the plate,” says Spurrell. “If the platter is too crowded it’s hard to get in there with your knife so perhaps consider making your presentation over two smaller platters instead. When decorating your plate, remember grapes always look nice, but they don’t always taste great, depending on what cheese you are serving. Dried fruit like apricots and dates can be great. Fresh figs, apples or pears are good also. If you are strapped for time you can always fake it with a combination of dried fruit, and some nice olives. Add some crackers or bread to have with your cheese.”
When the Spurrells are serving cheese with a great wine they avoid any flavoured crackers but for a general party anything goes. Fruit breads are a favourite, as are flatbreads or seed crackers. For a large party, sometimes it is fun to do a whole wheel of a soft cheese and then one firm cheese to accompany it. Alison says “A whole round of cheese looks impressive but isn’t too much fuss to deal with and can make a great centrepieces to your holiday table.”
Finally her advice on temperature: “Leave your plates out of the fridge, still covered, for an hour or two before you party. It will give the cheese a chance to warm up and for the flavours to develop. Even four or five hours won’t hurt.”
Here is a list of cheeses from Les Amis Du Fromage, with generic wine suggestions from Alison and a single wine pick by me. You are invited to pick and choose what you like for your party.
Pairing cheeses with wine
This covers anything with a bloomy white rind. Brie, Camembert, double creams, triple creams and more. Pair with red blends.
La Vieille Ferme CA?tes du Ventoux Rouge 2011 Rhone Valley, France, $13
MIXED RIND cipro and flagyl side effects together
This is a milder version of a washed rind cheese with a slightly orange coloured rind covered in a light bloom. Saint Albray, St Morgon, Montegnard, Brebis, Rousse, Sauvagine. Pair with Riesling.
Balthasar Ress Hattenheimer SchA?tzenhaus Riesling Kabinett 2011, Rheingau, Germany, $24
This is a stronger (and smellier) style of cheese. The crust is usually slightly sticky and orange, but the taste is earthy and great. Morbier, Oka, Fleur d’Aunis, Epoisses, Baluchon. Pair with GewA?rztraminer.
CedarCreek GewA?rztraminer 2012 Okanagan Valley, British Columbia, Canada, $18
It can be confusing as to what makes a hard or firm or semi-firm cheese. It mostly covers different cheese making techniques but for buying and eating purposes it covers lots of different flavours. Let’s call firm cheddars, Gouda, cave-aged gruyere plus other mountain style cheeses, Manchego, etc. Pair with Syrah, Malbec or Cabernet Franc.
Altos Los Hormigas Clasico Malbec 2012 Mendoza, Argentina, $15
This category would include especially aged cheeses and anything that really takes a good knife to cut. Piave Vecchio, Asiago, Reggiano, Saenkanter five-year-old Gouda, Honeybee goat Gouda, etc. Pair with Zinfandel, Sangiovese, Tempranillo.
Finca Villacreces Pruno 2011 Ribera del Duero, Castilla-Leon, Spain, $28
Anything with a blue veining in it. There are lots of different strengths of blue cheese so don’t be scared to include one. Cambazola, Bresse Bleu, Stilton, Shropshire, Roquefort, Cashel Blue. Pair with port, Sauternes or late harvest wines.
Taylor Fladgate First Estate Reserve Port N/V Douro Valley, Portugal, $22
Of course goat could be any of the categories above, hard, blue, soft or fresh like a plain fresh chA?vre. It is always nice to include one on your plate as it should be all right for your guests who may be lactose intolerant. Saltspring ChA?vre, Woolich Farms, Drunken Goat, ChA?vre Noir, Blue Goat Gouda and more. Pair with Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc or Pinot Gris.
Chateau de Sancerre 2011, Loire, France, $30
Sheep’s milk cheeses can also be many styles but sheep milk has a great flavour and it would be a shame to miss one on your plate. Manchego, Brebis Rousse, Brebiou, Idiazabal, Pepato, Aged Truffle Pecorino. Pair with Syrah, malbec cabernet franc and sparkling wine.
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