Champagne and oysters. Chocolate and peanut butter. Bacon and…almost anything. When it comes to pairing certain foods, be forewarned: gustatory magic may occur. Ingredients that are perfectly delicious on their own can taste exponentially better when eaten with something complementary.
But why take chances?
In my quest to discover how best to pair cheese with summer fruit, I spoke with Will Sissle and Mary Chapman Sissle, co-owners of The Cheese Shop of Portland, which will soon be opening its doors in Portland, Maine, a growing culinary New England hotspot. The couple, who met while working at the renowned Cowgirl Creamery in California, have both worked in the industry for many years, most recently at Formaggio Kitchen in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
The Cream of the Crop
When it comes to pairing cheese, the possibilities are limitless. “There are no hard and fast rules,” says Mary. Will adds,“Pairing in general…you can pleasantly overthink it, and add so many ingredients to create big flavor. But, sometimes, keeping it simple is best.”
In the Sissles’ case, simple also means high-quality. “When you’re working with good ingredients,” Mary explains, “you don’t need to add a lot. If you don’t have access to every single one of these products, go talk with your cheesemonger and say you want something like this. Something similar is fine. That’s the role of the cheesemonger, to help guide the customer to something that will be equally enjoyable.”
“Don’t be intimidated going into a cheese shop,” Will emphasizes. “People romanticize cheese, and make it like it’s an upper tier food, but…it used to be a food for everybody. It’s a peasant food. It’s nourishment.” He continues, “We’re lucky we can nerd up about it, but I want to inspire people to eat cheese everyday, like it’s a meal.”
While there is no wrong way to pair cheese and fruit, the Sissles do have some advice for where to start. “There’s a saying, ‘What grows together goes together,’” says Mary. “I think about either going with two things that have similar characteristics—for example, bright and fresh and tart flavors—or going with something that’s a total contrast, such as pairing sweet with bitter.” Texture, says Will, is also worth taking into consideration.
Savor These Simple Summer Pairings
Grilled Peach and Burrata Caprese
While Caprese salad is a nice way to highlight late summer’s superstar tomatoes, it might be time to kick it up a notch with some new ingredients. Instead of your standard mozzarella, try using burrata; the addition of cream in the center makes it a richer option. Then, replace the tomatoes with grilled peaches. “The smokiness of the peaches cuts through the sweetness of the burrata,” says Mary. Simply halve the fruit at its peak ripeness, lightly brush both sides of each half with olive oil and put them directly on the grill for a few minutes on each side. Put the lightly charred peaches on a plate with the burrata, add some prosciutto, basil and a drizzle of olive oil, and you’ve got the perfect light summer meal.
Kirkham’s Lancashire with Damson Fruit Cheese
“We absolutely adore it, it’s one of a kind,” Will enthuses. He’s talking about Mrs. Kirkham’s Lancashire, a raw milk cheese made by the Kirkham family by hand on their picturesque farm in the northwest of England. Made in a similar fashion to cheddar, he explains, “It gets this really cool texture to it. It goes well with like-minded flavors, any kind of fruit that’s more lively and bright on the tongue.” The Sissles like to pair it with England Preserves Damson Cheese, a sliceable preserve similar to quince paste, but made with local damson plums, an heirloom fruit native to the UK. Kirkham’s and damson cheese are almost identical in texture. “Eating them together, it’s everything I think of summer to be,” says Mary. “It’s like a little party in your mouth.”
Sliced Tomatoes and Sheep’s Milk Ricotta
“Ricotta is something that can easily be done poorly,” warns Will, so it really pays to splurge for a better quality product. The Sissles love the sheep milk ricotta from Bellwether Farms in Sonoma County, California, which has a higher fat content than that made with cow’s milk. This makes it richer, creamier and sweeter than what you might be used to. Slice up some ripe tomatoes, put them on crostini or sliced baguette and top them with a generous schmear of sheep milk ricotta and some good quality cracked black pepper for an afternoon snack or easy appetizer that will blow your mind.
Greek Feta and Mixed Berries
While the combination of feta cheese and watermelon may seem as original as pairing goat cheese with beets, you can make what’s old new again by substituting berries instead. “It’s a really nice balance of salty and sweet,” says Mary. Choose local berries in season, and either quarter them (if they’re strawberries) or, if they’re bite-sized, leave them whole. Toss the berries with some crumbled Greek feta made with sheep milk or a combination of sheep and goat milk, and you’ve got a nice side to replace that boring, traditional old fruit salad. Want to turn it into a dessert? Easy! Just drizzle it with honey.
Gorgonzola Dolce and Dried Apricots
“Most people think of blue cheese as a winter cheese,” Mary explains, “but I really love gorgonzola dolce. Aged only two months, it’s really creamy, sweet, bright and tangy.” In fact, say the Sissles, at some street fairs in Italy, this dessert-like blue cheese is eaten scooped into a waffle cone, just like ice cream. If you’re looking for a flavorful amuse bouche, try a dollop of gorgonzola dolce on top of a dried apricot. (Mary recommends using the Blenheim variety, which are now available at Trader Joe’s.)
Diced Pluots and Cottage Cheese
Cottage cheese and fruit. Could it get any more ‘80s than that?!? Believe it or not, it’s making a comeback. But this isn’t your tasteless, non-fat, diet cottage cheese from the days of doing Jane Fonda’s workout, oh no—we’re talking full fat curds made in small batches with organic grass fed milk that’s packed with protein. Cowgirl Creamery just started making its outstanding cottage cheese again, which Mary describes as her favorite snack on the planet. Made with their award-winning creme fraiche, it’s “extra silky, luxurious and decadent.” She recommends eating it with diced pluots, which are firm, tart and a perfect balance to the intense richness of the cottage cheese. Go give it a try (no aerobics required).
Related Video: 5 of the Most Bizarre Fruit Hybrids
Header image courtesy of Modern Honey.