Drinks & Eats

Tea and Cheese

The cheese course seems to be the biggest trend in the culinary world. I see myself reading about it in many popular cooking magazines as of late. I myself wasn't familiar with the formal cheese course until I became a fan of the cooking reality TV show, Top Chef. All of sudden, after duck confit with roasted sunchokes, but before the lavender scented panna cotta, there appeared a plate of cheese, arranged to please the eye, with maybe a artistic dab of quince jam on the plate. The closest thing I had known to a cheese plate before hand was the heavily picked-over plastic tray of cubed Cheddar and American cheese, and if it was fancy, it had some cubed Pepper Jack as well. You would stab a cube with a tinsel-topped toothpick and place it on top of Ritz, eating it to stave off your hunger because your hosts failed to mention that there wouldn't be 'real' food at their function.

Cheese Spread
Cheese Spread

Where does tea enter the picture? Most often, we think of wine as the perfect companion to cheese; the wine and cheese party is an established theme when it comes to entertaining. I had taken an interesting workshop on tea and cheese pairing while at the World Tea Expo where this was first introduced to me. Tea, can also pair very well with cheese, as it also contains tannins. Tannins are a substance that exists in grapes and tea leaves among other things and produces that tart, astringent taste that you may experience after drinking a deep red wine or black tea. It also lends to the color of the tea. Without tannins, both wine and tea would lack that complex taste and beautiful color. Not all teas are tannin-rich; exceptions are White and Green teas, which contain very little tannins, while Oolongs are in the middle, and Black teas have the most. When thinking of teas to pair with your cheese plate, sticking to Black or Oolong teas are good, but including a Green tea with a grassy or vegetal note will round out your selection wonderfully.

The idea of building a cheese plate may seem intimidating, but it's a great exercise in learning about different varieties of cheeses and exposing your palate to something different. Cheese and tea have a lot in common if you think about it: both vary when it comes to the region they are grown or produced as well as yield different tastes depending on the amount of or lack of processing. There are many good guides that have come out in the last few years that can also be helpful, if you think it'll be baffling. Though there might not be a cheese shop in your town or nearby, many supermarkets are expanding their cheese sections to include a diverse selection, going beyond Cheddar and Swiss. If you are fortunate enough to have a gourmet market with an extensive department or a cheese shop nearby, your cheese monger can help you make a selection and answer your questions.

A Spectrum of Tea
A Spectrum of Tea

To start, you basically want to choose about 3-5 types of cheeses with different textures (hard, semi-hard, creamy, soft), milks (sheep, cow, goat), and regions (from international cheese to locally made- many possibilities here!). Have some good bread and fruits that'll complement the cheeses on hand- they can make for palate cleansers in between tasting.

For your tea, choose some flavorful teas that have distinctive notes to them. To start, try 2-3 black teas and round out with a green and an oolong; adjust to match how many cheeses you will have on hand. Some great Black teas to have as the base for your tastings: Darjeeling, Assam, Lapsang Souchong, and Yunnan; they are all full-bodied teas that can stand up to the creaminess of cheese. Prepare your tea accordingly, being sure not to oversteep. Make sure there is enough for everyone to get a good taste of, but not fill up on.

In order to create great pairings, it's important to feel and understand the relationship between the taste of the cheese and tea. Tastes can be complementary- with similar flavors or contrasting where you can taste two distinct flavors that marry well with each other. Of course, you may also come across pairings that aren't good at all. First try each tea and cheese separately to understand the flavors, and then try together to see how they meld. Experiment profusely! Remember taste is subjective; use the following pairings as guidelines.

Some favorite pairings:

  • Asiago Pressata with a vegetal Green, Kukicha or Sencha (Asiago is a very mild cheese and goes well with a green tea that has a low amount of tannins).

  • Irish Whiskey Cheddar with Lapsang Souchong (the smokiness of Lapsang Souchong really holds up to the bitterness of the cheese)

  • Goat cheese with Assam (try with a dribble of honey on the cheese-it makes for a great flurry of flavors- the maltiness of the tea goes well with the tart of the cheese and the aftertaste of the honey).

  • Brie and Darjeeling (I learned to eat the 'flurry' which is the waxy rind on the brie- it helps bring out the flavor).

  • Manchego with Sencha (the tea helps mellow out the sharpness of this hard cheese)

Goat Cheese
Goat Cheese

A cheese with tea course makes a great addition for any function and the pairing will be unexpected! It's a great way to introduce unknown varieties of tea to novices. Typically the formal cheese course is served after the main course, before dessert, but can make for a great cocktail party dish. Here are more tips for a successful cheese and tea platter:

  • When buying your cheeses at a specialty store or cheese shop, you can often ask to sample a piece of cheese. Take advantage of it; though you may not have tea with you, you can imagine how the cheese will taste with a smoky tasting tea, a grassy tasting tea, etc.

  • Serve the cheese at room temperature, not right out of the fridge (but be sure to wrap up any leftover cheese and store it in the fridge, you don't want to leave the cheese sitting out-yuck!)

  • Arrange the cheese and tea from mildest to strongest. If you were to arrange the selections above, you would start with the Asiago Pressata/Kukicha and end with the Irish Whiskey Cheddar/Lapsang Souchong pairing.

  • Be creative and use fun serving pieces to display your tea and cheeses. I use thicker plastic party cups to serve my tea in so people can see the different colors of the tea's liquor. It's quite pretty.

  • Cut the cheese (oooh!) from the rind to the tip (imagine a typical wedge of cheese-do not cut from the tip of the triangle for a tiny nub). Cutting this wider slice of cheese will allow you to taste the total flavor of the cheese, which can be layered.

  • If you are doing a cheese and tea pairing with a group, leave out some note pads or pieces of paper so everyone can share their thoughts about each pairing. The more taste buds, the better!

Murray's Cheese
NPR: Cheese Course 101
Cowgirl Creamery