The more traditional of my mates think I’m way beyond the pale and really don’t approve, but I like to serve my cheese á la Française, that’s to say before the pud. I’ve never understood the reasoning behind going from savoury to sweet and back to savoury again. I reckon it plays havoc
with the taste buds. The last thing I fancy after a hearty dollop of créme brûlée, say, or banoffee pie, is some salty, tangy stilton and I do love my stilton.
Added to which the accompanying wines end up arse about face. It seems daft, if you’re having claret with your main course, for example, then a sauternes or beerenauslese with pudding, to head back to claret with the cheese. The claret will take exception to being maltreated and refuse to wiggle its hips the way it had previously. It’ll seem tannic and bitter where once it was smooth and elegant.
It takes me back to those ridiculous but trendy back-to-front dinner parties that were briefly in vogue circa summer 1979. You’d start with cigars, After Eights, coffee and brandy; then move to stilton and port; black forest gateau and dessert wine; beef wellington and claret; prawn cocktail and chablis; canapés and champagne and, finally, gin and tonic. It was a shocking waste of food since folk rarely made it beyond the cheese and those who did tended not to keep down whichever course and accompanying liquor they finally managed to reach. I do remember, though, that it always seemed a cracking idea at the time.
Anyway, having thus outed myself as a culinary heretic, I might as well also admit that I’m not sure that red wine is the best partner for cheese.
Something not very nice occurs when the tannins of the wine start fighting with the acids of the cheese. Richard Sutton, manager of swanky cheesemonger, Paxton & Whitfield,once memorably described to me the result of this struggle as “an explosion of manure” in the mouth. Yeurk!
It was my old chum David Roberts who showed me the light by serving an old white burgundy – a meursault, I think it was – alongside some lovely, crumbly Lancashire cheese. I was taken aback by how scrumptious a pairing it was. It just seemed to make sense. As did the premier cru chablis he put with some rich, creamy brillat-savarin.
I was reminded of this the other evening as I uncorked a 2005 pouilly-vinzelles from Louis Latour. I was just giving it a quick once-over with a view to having a glass with my smoked salmon when I was struck by a slightly bitter, cheesy note behind the glossy ripe fruit. I bunged it in the fridge, opened a Seresin Estate sauvignon blanc from Marlborough, New Zealand, for the fish and brought out the pouilly later to go with some wonderful brie. It worked an absolute treat.
If white burgundy and chablis seem unlikely pairings with cheese, then so-called dessert wines – a misnomer if ever there were one, since they are far more versatile than the term suggests – are tried and tested triumphs. The best match for me was a voluptuous, marmaladey sweet tokaji 5 puttonyos with slivers of très vieille mimolette, that amber-hued French cheese. They not only shared a slight citrus nuttiness but were even the same colour. Crikey, it was good.
On the principle that opposites attract and that sweet complements salt, tokaji also goes beautifully with soft blue cheeses such as roquefort or saint-agur. Sauternes, on the other hand, is great with aged gouda or top-quality cheddar.
German wines, sweet or off-dry also work brilliantly. A full-on port goes pretty well with stilton but I’d rather have a fine spatlese any day. The 2008 Leitz Estate Rudesheim Berg Roseneck riesling spatlese from M&S, with its freshness, hints of honey and crisp apples, is spot on.
Beers, of course, are great matches. After all, who’d argue with all those ploughmen and their lunches? But instead of straightforward mild or bitter, I search out something a bit quirky. Innis & Gunn’s rum cask finish, with its slight raisiny toffiness, is delicious with full-flavoured hard cheeses, while the Belgian fruit beers such as bacchus frambozen are simply great with goat’s cheese.
Most surprising of all is how fine a match malt whisky is. Roquefort washed down by a nip of Ardbeg 10-year-old is one of life’s great treats, the mineral
peatiness of the whisky bringing out the cheese’s saltiness.
Now, I wonder what goes best with gin and tonic.
6 of the best drinks to wash down your cheese
More by Jonathan Ray: Winter Wines