TEA AND CHEESE
a delicious twist on entertaining
Chefs and restauranteurs, with an ever-growing demand to satisfy the sophisticated palates of their patrons, are embracing a new twist to the cheese flight: pairing exceptional teas with artisanal cheeses for a wholly intoxicating taste experience beyond what connoisseurs have done for centuries matching cheeses with wine.
This is just as delicious an idea in the home as in a restaurant, and we hope you’ll try it. The objective is to choose both teas and cheeses to bring out the best of each without one overpowering the other.
A flight of cheese pairings with teas should be modest in size, three to five choices maximum so as not to overwhelm the palate. Start with the mildest cheese and edge toward a more assertive one, and do the same with the teas.
Small 1 to ½” bites of each cheese will be enough to pair with 3 to 5 ounces of tea. (Think Asian-style cups vs. British or American dinnerware cups and certainly not mugs.)
Customary additions work well: nuts, like almonds, walnuts or cashews; a dollop of fruity chutney, marmalade or jam, or quince paste.
Serve with small slices of French baguette or an artisanal Italian white bread or plain rice or wheat crackers to eat with the cheese, especially creamy ones. Slices of harder cheese may be picked up by hand or placed on crackers or bread. Also, the bread aids in cleansing the palate between bites. Drinking from a glass of water in between tea tastings is an optional palate cleanser.
The Netherlands’ Gouda was hands down the favorite cheese to use in this decidedly unscientific experience the author had with a few friends. Gouda’s buttery flavor, and creamy texture, were perfect with assertively astringent teas like Darjeeling or Ceylon blacks yet (surprisingly) did not overpower more delicate whites or greens.
The sharper a cheese, the softer or creamier a tea it demands. The soft roundness of a Keemun seemed to be perfect as were aged Puerhs with sharp cheddars or Spanish Manchego, for example.
While there are thousands of cheeses, let your palate (and pocketbook) be your guide. We chose to stick with those cheeses most readily found in supermarkets or cheese shops. When in doubt, think in terms of soft/sharp; creamy/biting, nutty/astringent as ideal pairings in either tea or cheese.
When in doubt of where to begin, choose your favorite three teas, and mix and match with three favorite cheeses, remembering to taste from mild to strong flavors with both the tea and the cheese selections.
Darjeeling or Ceylon, Sencha or Dragonwell, Puerh or Keemun are excellent with a wide variety of cheeses, including, as noted above, Gouda, Brie, Ricotta, and Chèvre, (goat cheese.) Play with them and see how your palate reacts, taking note of both fragrance and taste combinations.
We did try a smoky Lapsang Souchong with smoky aged Gouda and with milder cheeses, but the smokiness seemed overpowering. You may, however, love that, so don’t hesitate to use the teas and cheeses you love.
All the pairings cited here are for freshly brewed hot tea; iced teas just do not stand up well to this taste adventure. Temperatures are particularly important in these pairings, and observing the tea vendor’s suggestions are important.
It is the heat of the brewed tea that helps release both flavor and fragrance of a cheese. The tea cleanses, enhances, blends with the natural essence of the cheese for a whole new flavor sensation, one the Japanese call umami, giving your palate a sensation unknown to the cheese or tea by itself.
PAIRING BY TEA
PAIRING BY CHEESE
Soft, mild, creamy cheeses like Brie, Camembert, even some Chèvre (goat cheese) pairs up beautifully with brisk, clean blacks like a Ceylon or a nuanced, fruity black Darjeeling. Interestingly, a grassy Japanese Sencha works well too.
Salty cheeses pair both with slightly sweet and floral teas, such as an oolong or the earthier Keemun. With an intensely salty cheese such as Stilton, try sipping some aromatic Earl Grey. A sweet, fruity black tea such as Chinese lychee congee also works to balance salt.
Nutty cheeses like a Dutch Gouda or Edam, or a Norwegian Jarlsberg are best with a softer black like a Chinese Keemun or perhaps a high-grade green Dragonwell.
Blue Cheeses might seem overwhelming with tea, but consider Gorgonzola, Roquefort or Stilton not just for their bite of “blue” but for their buttery creamy texture and taste. Their saltiness demands a deep earthy tea like Puerh, or the roundness of Keemun, or perhaps a malty Assam.
Hard Cheeses like Manchego or Parmesan have a nutty or fruity hint that is a challenge, but we found Ti Kwan Yin and milk oolongs were a perfect match. The cheeses’ aged versions almost cry out for a similarly aged tea, and Puerh is definitely a match.
Semi-Hard Cheeses like Swiss, Gruyere, or Cheddar are delicious with buttery crackers, buttered bread along with chai blends or with the round edges prevalent in Keemun or Yunnan black teas.
Semi-Soft Cheeses like Muenster, Monterey Jack, Fontina are mild in taste, smooth in texture, and match well with the grassy essence of Japanese Gyokuro or Sencha or even a delicate Silver Needle white tea.
Delicate cheeses like an Italian Buffalo Mozzarella or sweet Ricotta or even a small-curd cottage cheese are delicious with a dab of honey and match well with a White Silver Needle or White Peony or other delicate green like Dragonwell (Lung Ching.) The operative word here is delicate with delicate to bring out the grassiness of the teas and the sweetness of the cheeses, with or without the honey garnish.
Because you’re drinking small quantities of teas with small bites of cheeses, experimenting need not be costly, it only needs to be adventurous. The possibilities are endless, so we’d love to learn which combinations of teas and cheeses were particularly satisfying to you. Leave a comment and let us know! Happy Pairing!