Sherry and Cheese? Yes please!
Lately I’ve been turning my mind to cheese. Who am I kidding? I’m always turning my mind to cheese! I’ve never met a cheese I didn’t love and, like sherry, it offers such incredible diversity of flavour and texture that I never lose interest. Also in common with sherry, all that diversity comes from a single simple base product; in cheese’s case, milk.
So, as you can imagine, I’ve tasted my way through many a cheese board and played around with sherry pairings. One of my favourite events of International Sherry Week 2015 was a sherry and cheese tasting, where we paired dry sherries with nine Spanish cheeses, mix ‘n’ match style, and with a lot of laughter thrown into the bargain!
Pairing sherry and cheese is hardly a novel concept, but most of us tend to stick with the tried and tested combinations: a few slivers of mild Manchego with some Fino, as part of a tapas feast; a chunk of strong blue with a shot of PX to round off the evening. Don’t get me wrong, those are classics for good reason. However, with such a variety of cheese flavours out there, you’re missing out if you don’t try pairing across the whole sherry spectrum.
If I learned anything from the mix ‘n’ match cheese pairing, it’s that everyone likes a different combo. So don’t be constrained by the pairing tips that follow – they’re just inspiration to get you started.
Firstly, I do like a rule of thumb, so here’s mine for pairing sherry and cheese:
The stronger and sharper the cheese, the browner the sherry
You don’t go far wrong applying that rule, but here are some more tips:
Mild hard cheeses are the order of the day with Fino. You want a decent salty tang in the cheese, to complement the Fino, but anything too complex overpowers the wine. Young Manchego, mild to medium Cheddar and Cheshire all work a treat. A light smoke also works, such as San Simon d’Acosta, a semi-cured smoked cow’s milk cheese from Galicia.
Amontillado is the master pairing for tricky earthy flavours like mushrooms, artichokes and asparagus. Likewise on the cheese board, Amontillado sings when you pair it those cheeses that taste of the barn floor: Brie, Caerphilly, soft gooey goat’s cheese, Torta del Casar, a ewe’s milk cheese from Extremadura that’s almost liquid.
Anything with truffle involved is a winner too. Drake’s Tabanco does a stunning tapa of creamed and truffled goat’s cheese with honey and almonds. I could probably live on it.
And if that wasn’t enough, stronger smoke flavours work, so add a smoked cheese to the Amontillado cheese board too.
All cheese has plenty of umami flavours, but some are blow-your-socks-off umami. These are a job for Palo Cortado. It has the robustness of an Oloroso in the mouth, so copes well with sharp, tangy flavours, like some of the less feisty Parmesans and Idiazabal, a ewe’s milk cheese from the Basque Country. The resinous notes of Palo pair fantastically with the earthier, farmyard flavours of goat’s cheeses such as Tronchón from Aragón and French Chabis. Palo Cortado also pairs fantastically with truffled cheeses.
Rich, powerful Oloroso pairs beautifully with really robust cheeses. It doesn’t just stand up to strong flavours, it brings out the best in them – in much the same way it does with a deeply flavoured casserole. It’s surprisingly versatile too, pairing equally well with eye-wateringly sharp hard cheeses such as Parmesan, very mature Manchego and mature Cheddar, medium strength blues such as Gorgonzola, and cheeses with a sweet side like Ermesenda a cow’s milk cheese from Catalunya. It’s also a classic pairing with Payoyo, cheese made with a mix of goat’s ewe’s milk in Andalucía.
My latest favourite pairing for Oloroso is Prima Donna, a very mature Gouda that combines the sharpness of a Parmesan with the sweetness I normally associate with this Dutch cheese. It’s also got a hit of smoke thrown in for good measure. Definitely worth seeking out.
Sweet, sweet, sweet, PX need to be paired with a cheese powerhouse. Some of the really sharp hard cheeses that pair with Oloroso work well, just make sure they’re very strong and salty. However, it’s the super blues that do it for me: Picón Bejes-Tresviso, a Cantabrian cheese made from a mix of cow’s ewe’s and goat’s milks, Cabrales from Asturias, Roquefort, Stilton and Lanark Blue. Basically the bluer and stinkier the better, the kind of cheese that is trying to get out of the fridge all by itself. The sourness and saltiness of these cheeses provide the yin to PX’s super-sweet yang; they’re each other’s perfect counterpoint.
Cream offers the same flavours as Oloroso but with a hit of sweetness. It shares many pairings with Oloroso and PX, so is a versatile option, but be careful when pairing blue cheeses. A medium-strength blue like Gorgonzola is overpowered by the sweetness, but some of the super blues like Picón and Cabrales overpower the sherry. For me the best matches are the hard sharp cheeses, like Parmesan and Prima Donna Gouda. Given the sweetness of the wine, this is also the time to add a bit of membrillo (quince paste) too.
So what are you waiting for? I’ve just given you the perfect excuse for a big old cheeseboard and a line-up of your favourite sherries. I’ll race you to the fridge!
With thanks to Iain J Mellis, Cheesemongers in Morningside, Edinburgh, for letting me take photos and offering advice during my research. And thanks to Goya 23, in Stockbridge, Edinburgh, for planting the seed for the Sherry and Cheese tasting in International Sherry Week 2015 and introducing me to a fabulous range of lesser-known Spanish cheeses.