Everyone has their odd food likes and dislikes. I can’t bear jam, or anything sweet or sticky, on toast but for some reason jam filling in cakes and honey baked in something savoury doesn’t bother me. I love corn on the cob with HP sauce as well as butter, a touch of sea salt in any kind of chocolate cake or bar is my idea of heaven and cheddar cheese, as far as I am concerned, is at its best served with some Patak’s spicy lime pickle (even though I don’t technically like pickle…). But it’s always lovely to challenge your tastebuds and not take what you like for granted; otherwise many of us would still be drinking milk and eating mashed vegetables. This weekend I challenged mine by attending Food Network‘s tutored wine and cheese tasting with Tim Atkin and Patricia Michelson at the South Bank’s cheese and wine festival. Though a dyed-in-the-wool-red-wine-with-cheese and preferably-after-dinner-and-before-the-dessert sort of person, I came away, after six wines, 12 cheeses and an hour’s information, completely converted to eating cheese with dry or sweet Alsacian white wine, and convinced that they are perfect before and after dinner.
What was brilliant about the event was the range: in only an hour we worked our way through six grape varieties (Auxerrois, Pinot Blanc, Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Noir) and cheeses from Britain, France, Ireland and Italy. And even in that tiny slot of time I felt like I gained enough knowledge to repeat the experience at home. We started with a Pinot Blanc/Auxerrois, a refreshing white wine that is perfect combined with the farmyard flavours of Morbier (Franche-Comté, France) and Durrus (Cork, Ireland). The cheeses were earthy, the wine light and the two together would be lovely as an apéritif.
Next we moved onto a young 2009 Riesling. This grape, as Tim Atkin pointed out, is much disliked for its high acidity and sweetness. Wines made from it in Alsace, though, tend to be drier, not at all like the cheap German stuff you may have swigged back as a teenager. This one, from one of the 18 co-operatives in Alsace, was dry, unoaked and more complex than the first wine and we tried it with a Coolea (also from Cork, pronounced Coolay) and a Parmigiano Reggiano (Reggio Emilia, Italy). My god, a crunchy, salty Parmigiano with this Riesling was just divine and the Coolea, a sweet-salty almost Gouda-like cheese was equally delicious.
My first favourite came next, an older Riesling (the most expensive at £33) from Trimbach, with Comté (also from Franche-Comté, France) and Elmhirst (Devon, UK); I adore Comté and I’m even more in love with it now that I’ve tried it with this toasty, rich, dry and, sadly, rather out-of-my-reach wine. The Elmhirst was lovely too, a really rich creamy cheese.
Wine four was a Pinot Gris, a relatively neutral wine but not, as Tim Atkin pointed out, neutral in a tasteless Pinot Grigio-style; an Alsacian Pinot Gris is richer and slightly sweeter. This was matched with two creamy cheeses: Chaource (Champagne, France) and Pont L’Eveque (Normandy, France) and somehow the creaminess of the cheese emphasised the wine’s creaminess too.
Next we moved onto my second favourite, what I can only describe as the perfect post-dinner cheese and wine combination: Gewurztraminer and Roquefort (Rouergue, France). Who’d have thought that the saltiest blue cheese would be so happy alongside the sweetest white? Gorgeous.
Finally, we tried an Alsacian Pinot Noir, one of the palest reds on the market, with two very classic cheeses: Camembert (Normandy, France) and Westcombe Cheddar (Somerset, England). It is not a complex Pinot Noir (that’s Burgundy we were told) but if you want something red but relatively light this is perfect. And, although I would rarely bother with Camembert, combined with a wine like this it’s wonderful. Apparently it is one of the hardest cheeses to match with wine, since it is so easily overwhelmed, but with this light fruity red it was very happy. Cheddar, on the other hand, particularly a traditional crumbly type like this, which isn’t too strong, is very good with a simple not too complex wine, since it is so high in acidity itself.
It was a glorious event, helped by the glorious weather; the South Bank was packed with people sitting around with lumps of cheese, bread and bottles of wine in the sunshine. My only complaint is that I could have easily eaten and drunk the same quantity all over again…ah well, I shall just have to go shopping.