Researching chocolate compatibilities with whisky and other foods has meant knocking on many literary and actual doors. Since publishing my book Deep Tasting Chocolate & Whiskey, I've had the privilege to write for Whisky Magazine (UK) and, along the way, was delighted to encounter the writings of Martine Nouet, a leader in pairing food and whisky for over 20 years. A prolific writer in her native French, fortunately, Ms. Nouet's book `A Table: Whisky from Glass to Plate is available in English. Her insights and basic principles are gems. Take her concept of a food bridge. A bridge food uses the texture or flavor of one food to facilitate a favorable interaction between two others. The result is a gustatory triad. Ms. Nouet and I share a regard for specificity. In other words, the exact brand and expression of a whisky matter when attempting to pair. In my experience, it’s the same when attempting to pair chocolate, cheese, or anything else.
Ms. Nouet spent decades experimenting. Meanwhile, a quiet revolution has been going on in food science. Flavor specialists and molecular gastronomists have been busy deriving formulae for successful pairing. One idea that has shown promise is “molecular rhyming,” that is, pairing foods that share molecular compounds. There are websites, such as the subscriber-based foodpairing.com, co-founded by Bernard Lahousse, Peter Coucquyt, and John Langerbich, and IBM’s Chef Watson :https://ibmchefwatson.com. Among several books on the topic is the latest, The Flavor Matrix: The Art and Science of Pairing Common Ingredients to Create Extraordinary Dishes, by James Briscione of New York’s Institute of Culinary Education and wife Brooke Parkhurst. Contrary to the use of the word “pairing,” the focus is actually enabling home cooks and chefs who want to combine ingredients to create novel dishes rather than simple pairings as ends in themselves. Dining versus tastings. As far as whisky is concerned, both foodpairing.com and Chef Watson lead in including broad categories of whisky. But that’s also their limitation. They do not list specific brands nor distinguish between their expressions. Their databases are more advanced in descriptions of beer and cheese brands than whisky or chocolate, which are, in reality, presented as generic ingredients. Ms. Nouet’s recommendation to consider whisky as a spice when using it as a cooking ingredient is consistent with that approach.
When it comes to tasting two or three individual items, pairing is a matter of subtlety and nuance. Just as the flavor profiles of whisky brands and expressions, chocolate cannot always be reduced to the broad industrial categories of dark, milk and white. Fine chocolate is more than “chocolatey”; it contains complex aromatic and flavor notes, and those flavor profiles must be considered carefully when pairing. The science-based data bases referenced above are simply not yet specific enough.
It’s essential to describe complex flavor profiles when working with artisan or craft chocolate in the context of pairing only two or three items. We need to tease out and appreciate the full spectrum of flavors and textures available to us. This need for specificity extends also to cheese, as I’ve been finding out. A Gouda aged 1-2 years is an entirely different animal than a Gouda aged 4 years. A raw farm house cheddar that whispers barnyard is a world away from the sublime notes of the Dorset's Coastal Cheddar ® or even an unpasteurized (raw milk) cheddar like Montgomery's (also UK). These cheeses will pair with whisky in an entirely different maner too.
Whisky, chocolate, cheese. When I recommend any of these, I know I need to be as specific as possible. So start with a great whisky, then locate a reliable cheese monger and a purveyor of fine, craft (artisan) bean-to-bar chocolate bars or the chocolate-maker's online store.
Let’s try some pairings and triads.
Redbreast 12 year (Ireland) with its rich, sherry-endowed dried fruit notes
pairs beautifully with….
Coastal Cheddar ® (Dorchester, England), aged a minimum of 15 months. It has a nutty and floral nose and a fruity, buttery palate. In a word–superb.
Castronovo (Florida, USA), Sierra Nevada (Columbia) 72%. The profile is fruit and forest.
or, easier to find in the UK–
Akesson’s, Brazil, Fazenda Sempre Firme, 75%. Earthy roast characteristics brings out oak and spice notes in the whisky, then balance the triad completed by the cheese.
Woodford Reserve Distiller’s Select Kentucky Straight Bourbon. The significant rye presence in the mash bill wins this year’s Kentucky Derby. It goes well with another winner…
Prairie Breeze™ (Iowa, USA). A “Cheddar-type” cheese aged a minimum of 9 months has garnered international awards in the Cheddar category. It has a fresh-lemony and slightly nutty nose. As soon as your teeth sink in, it explodes with depth, cream crumble and perfect salinity.
Creo Chocolate (Oregon, USA), Heirloom Hacienda Li´mon (Ecuador) 73%. A delightfully rich mouthfeel with an earth, fruit and honey-caramel profile
Westland Peated American Single Malt Whiskey (Washington, USA). Peat in the nose along with orange zest, spice and malt. Herbal palate and roast notes. Cinnamon and smoke finish. But let it breathe a long while and chocolate notes hit you in the face. One great innovator deserves another two …
Bay Blue (California, USA). With caramel in the nose, and dark chocolate on the palate, it’s fudgy mouthfeel still finishes blue.
Fruition Hispaniola 68%,batch 23 (New York, USA) The fruit and spice profile complements the chocolate notes in the Westland perfectly.
or go for a Scottish peated option with…
Ardbeg Peated Single Malt Scotch Whisky 10 year. Peaty and malty, of course, roasted notes, coffee, chocolate and smokey finish.
Colson Bassett Stilton PDO (England). Milk chocolate and butter nose, peanuts and chocolate that bites back. Firm, butter mouthfeel.
Marou (Vietnam)Tien Giang 80%. Spice profile with the power to stand up to any Islay peated. If you prefer a chocolate with less muscle, try the Marou Tien Giang 70%
Decades ago, a sudden onset of allergies to the sulfites in wine slammed the brake on any serious relationship I had with that beverage. Years later, when I first nosed my way into whisky, the prospect of sherry cask finishing gave me pause. In the United States, any food or drink containing more than 10 parts per million must list sulfites on the label. The European Union and the United Kingdom have similar regulations. So I checked the labels. Finding no warnings on sherry-finished whisky bottles gave me the courage to try. I swallowed an alcohol compatible anti-histamine, kept my adrenaline pen at the ready, tasted, spat, and actually swallowed one sip. I survived! But you already know that.
About 10% of the population may be allergic to sulfites. A similar percentage of the population report allergies to penicillin, and that brings us to cheese. Penicillium candidum or camemberti, found in brie and many soft cheeses, and Penicillium roqueforti and glaucum, found in blue cheeses, are not the same strain as the antibiotic form--Penicillium chrysogenum. The antibiotic is made with an extract, not the whole form as used in cheese. Many people who are allergic to the medication are able to consume these cheeses without difficulty. But not everyone! Some people will indeed react to these cheeses with symptoms ranging from mild rashes or hives to life-threatening anaphylaxis.
Food writers seldom suggest alternative ingredients for well known allergens. I can’t offer an alternative for chocolate. Trust me, there is none. But with respect to cheese, I decided to search out substitutions for the blues, tasting my way through various groups of non-blues made in Britain, France, Denmark, Holland and Switzerland, only to end up in Italy. Why is it important to find a substitute for blue cheese? Because peated whiskies tend to pair best with the blues.Given the number of peated whiskies and their fans, I couldn't just leave these spirits unmatched. My search turned up two northern Italian cheeses that are most compatible with the peated. They are both unpasteurized varieties. One is semi-soft, the other hard. And they are well-aged. I can’t stress the aged aspect strongly enough.
Here are the ones to buy:
Fontina (PDO) Valle d’Aosta (Val d’Aosta in the USA) is semi-soft, made from the raw milk of grass-fed cows in the Piedmont region. The cheese should be aged 6-9 months, minimally. The texture is almost gummy. Of the two cheeses, this melts more easily, if you wish to serve it on bread or toast. Easy does it, though. Even in my old microwave, 10 seconds suffice.
Asiago (PDO) d’Allevo (Vecchio or Stravecchio) is a hard cheese that originates in the Veneto or Trentino regions, made from the raw milk of cows grazed on a high alpine plateau. Look for one that is aged more than 10 months (vecchio) or 15 months (stravecchio). The texture is somewhat crumbly. It is best cut into cubes.
PDO means the name has origin-designated protection similar to use of the terms “scotch” or “bourbon.” Make sure to get to know and buy from reliable, knowledgeable cheese mongers who sell the highest quality imported cheeses. Yes, it will cost more, but it’s worth it. In New York, the cheese mongers at Zabar’s or Murray’s will let you taste before you buy. To be sure the cheeses are the real deal and not cheap knock-offs, look for the consortium stamp on the outside of the cheese wheel, or ask the seller to check. Don’t settle for the younger, pasteurized-type Fontina or Asiago— they are too mild to hold their own when matched to a peated whisky.
Here are some tasting notes for the cheeses:
Nose: earthy, mushroom, smoke
Palate: cream, sometimes fruity, truffle undernotes
Finish: cream of mushroom and white pepper
Nose: toast and savory caramelized butter
Palate: sharp, tangy and slightly spicy
Finish: saline and tangy
Lagavulin 16 & Fontina
The cheese amps the peat, and the whisky pops the mushroom bottom of the cheese. Add a baguette or sourdough bread to bridge the two. If you like peat, you’ll enjoy the direction of the duo.
Lagavulin 16 & Asiago
Very good together. Balanced. Whole grain or spelt bread bridge works here.
Lagavulin 16 is a widely-owned, classic peated whisky, but Ardbeg 10 worked well with both cheeses too. When matching to cheese, compatibility comes down more to the strength of the peat and, surprisingly, less than whether it has the marine or medicinal notes. I tried whiskies that source their peat from regions other than Islay. The American Single Malt by Kings County Distillers (USA) uses peat from the Highlands. The effect is gentle. Connemara Peated Irish Whiskey is more heavily peated than the Kings County, but also lacks marine notes. Both the Kings County and the Connemara worked well with the Fontina and the Asiago. So start with your favorite peated whisky. Experiment!
Add chocolate (although, you should probably taste the chocolate first. I always do!):
In general, what works with peated whiskies is a dark chocolate that has some spice notes in its profile. Here are my picks:
Marou (Vietnam) Tien Giang Dark Chocolate 70%
with Fontina & Lagavulin 16
Bold balance of brown fruit and spice respect all that the whisky and cheese bring to the experience.
Pump Street Bakery (UK) Madagascar Dark Milk Chocolate 58% with Asiago & Ardbeg 10
If you’re a die-hard milk chocolate fan, try this dark one. The usual citrus notes found in a Madagascar are sufficiently off set by the milk, enabling it to work with the cheese and this peated whisky.
Pump Street Bakery (UK) Honduras 80% with Asiago & Lagavulin 16
High octane cacao with winey fruit, smoky molasses and spice notes stands up to the power of the whisky and the cheese.
Fruition Hispaniola (USA) 68% has just enough spice, fruit and extra sweetness to work with almost any peated whisky. Try it!
ALTERNATIVES FOR BRIE, CAMEMBERT AND SOFT CHEESES
Brie-type cheeses tend to go well with young single malts and blended grain whiskies, aged in bourbon casks, according to Martine Nouet. As for pairing with chocolate, it all depends. Bries can vary as to sharpness as well as flavor notes, so finding the right whiskies and chocolates will take some experimentation. That may be the least of your challenges. Why?The molds most used to produce the typical bloomy rinds and soft centered cheeses are Penicillum Camemberti and Penicillum Candidum. They are prevalent, not only in brie and camembert, but also in many goat cheeses. You may think that if you are allergic to these white molds that you can never enjoy a soft cheese, but I have good news. There are a number of delicious cheeses that use Geotrichum Candidum instead. The cheeses may be buttery like bries with a rind of a brainy or cauliflower appearance. They tend to be sweeter, less acidic, and more delicate than the cheeses made with the penicillum molds. Geotrichum is a yeast that occurs in nature. It may be used in addition to, or instead of, Penicillum. Of course, if you're allergic, you will want to find cheeses that use the Geotrichum exclusively. One caveat, however, for those who have had severe allergic reactions to penicillin as an antibiotic or cheese. Be aware that many cave-aged cheeses are housed in close proximity with other cheeses. Unless the cave is careful to separate cheeses with varying molds, a geotrichum cheese may still attract a small amount of other molds in the environment. Also if you have a compromised immune system or are on immune-suppressant medications, geotrichum cheeses may not be for you. I am not an expert in this area, so I advise you to research Geotrichosis and discuss it with your doctor.
One French cheese available in the States is Saint Nuage. This geotrichum cheese is rather in a category of it's own. It's a triple-cream made from cow milk. The aroma is hay and pleasantly animally, not as strong as a goat cheese and not blatantly barnyard.On the palate, there's a fleeting lemony impression. In terms of texture, the rind is buttery but the paste is more like cheese cake, with a hint of grainy texture. It's more delicate and sweeter than brie, with a slight acidity to the finish. Try it with a young spirit, like Westland American Single Malt or others with roast flavors. American single malts tend to have higher alcohol content than Scottish counterparts, so I was surprised that the Westland, at 46 ABV, didn't just crush the hell out of the Nuage. Saved by the cream, I guess. Akesson's Chocolate, Criollo Madagascar 75% completed these two as a trio, if you're so inclined.
An American soft, brie-type cheese I've been enjoying lately is Cremont by Vermont Creamery. It's made with cow and goat milks. And it's delightful! Its delicate buttery flavors require a lower alcohol proof whisky companion. I suggest a gentle single malt or blend with orchard fruit—fresh apple or pear— flavor notes. I haven't tried them together, but Dewers Blended Scotch Whisky (white label) comes to mind. I'd also try Brenne aged in cognac casks. Teeling Blended Irish Whiskey aged in rum casks worked nicely. The Speyside single malt Balvenie Double Wood 12 year opened up fruity notes, particularly some apricot. Chocolates that triad well are ones that have a substantial fruit and floral profile component, such as Charm School Belize 70% or Pump Street Grenada 70%.
Another geotrichum American-made soft cheese is St. Johnsville Jr. by Cochran Farms, a Hudson Valley creamery. This cheese is all goat and is a great substitute for Boucheron-type logs. It's stronger than the Cremont and stands up to single malts such as Glenlivet 12. As for teaming up with chocolate, look for one with a roast profile–nuts and delicate cocoa notes. The necessary classic "chocolatey" backbone can be found in Dandelion's Mantuano 70%.
(C) copyright 2018 by R. M. Peluso.