“A book of Verses underneath the Bough, A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread—and Thou.”
Thus goes the most famous phrase praising the romance of the table, appearing in the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, a collection of verses written c. 1100 (and given widespread popularity in the 19th century by translator Edward FitzGerald). And yet…the most oft-suggested modern idea of romantic paradise at table celebrates wine…and cheese. Wine and cheese. Wine and cheese everywhere in gastronomic clichés today. Ad infinitum. And ad nauseum. Unless Omar Khayyam was thinking that “Thou” was named “Camembert” or “Cheddar”…cheese didn’t make it into his phrase for the ages.
To me…that’s just as it should be.
The disappointments I’ve known regarding wine and cheese together have been manifold. The ostensible inevitability of wine and cheese has been dangled before me for my whole life, usually accompanied by lush strings and reedy pipes. However, truth be told, I’ve been at hundreds of dinners where someone at table says, “Oh gosh, leave some Chambolle-Musigny in the bottle; we’ll drink it with the cheese course.” On these occasions, in my experience…mega-gallons of good red Burgundy have been wasted on dreamers not ready to trust the evidence of their senses!!!
Wine with cheese can work…but you have to be extremely crafty to make it do so. That poor Chambolle-Musigny is overwhelmed by many cheeses (such as Burgundy’s most cultish cheese, the oft-offered Époisses). Serve that Époisses with a heartier red…and weird, tobacco-like flavors come out…that encourage you to do what one does with chewing tobacco. It is often held that the creaminess of cheese “softens” the tannin of young, vigorous red wine—but I think the tannin, instead, just gets nastier and more insistent. As for the light and dry white wines that most people drink…again we need the sommelier to soar! Many of these white wines provoke bitterness and salt from cheese.
With a lifetime of dissatisfaction in mind, I recently launched a grand experiment (the detailed results of which turn up in the current issue of my newsletter, The Rosengarten Report). I selected eight iconic cheeses, roughly standing in for the whole spectrum of possibilities. Then, I selected 25 wines, each one meant to represent a style available to us all. And then…I selected 25 more beverages…none of them wine! Beer, tea, kombucha, coffee, hard cider…you name it! With every cheese, I slurped the same 50 beverages, keeping careful notes about the fizzles, the frazzles and the dazzles. It was a great deal of work (400 tastes!)…but it was positively exhilarating. Because I now think I know what’s up.