Typically when we think about pairing beverages with cheese our minds gravitate directly to wine and/or beer. And there's a reason we come back to these pairings again and again - the amazing, sometimes revelatory experiences these combinations offer up. The problem is, there's a tendency to stop with wine and beer, as if the cheese adventure ended there. But with the growing popularity of exceptional small batch, handmade cheese these days, people are starting to think outside of the proverbial box (the cheese box?). I'm glad to see that we're moving away from thinking of cheese as a strictly formal food, only to be eaten ceremonially. In Europe, Scandinavia and the Mediterranean, where indigenous cheeses have been made for hundreds or even thousands of years, cheese is much more of an everyday part of a meal....and it's not at all out of the ordinary to consume cheese alongside coffee, spirits or tea.
Recently, I had the privilege of exploring tea and cheese pairings with two masters of their respective disciplines: David Gremmels of Rogue Creamery and Steven Smith of Steven Smith Teamaker. Steven Smith founded the well known tea brands Stash and Tazo before moving on; his newly minted eponymous tea enterprise is housed in Northwest Portland at NW 16th and Thurman. The multi-purpose site houses the facility where the retail line of teas are blended and packaged as well as a small but lovely tea cafe; visitors are encouraged to stop by, enjoy a cup of tea and explore many unique tea varieties that are not sold in other retail outlets.
But onward to our cheese/tea pairing impressions. Steven Smith poured a variety of teas ranging from white to green to black and herbal. We sniffed, savored, sampled and re-sampled with cheeses from Rogue Creamery as well as several other producers and below are some of the impressions I took from the experience.
Rogue River Blue went well with some of Smith's fruitier herbal teas like Red Nectar and Big Hibiscus - this makes sense because 1) Rogue River Blue is itself on the sweet side, as it is covered with grape leaves that have been soaked in pear brandy, and like flavors often pair well together and 2) blue cheeses traditionally go well with sweet dessert wines or ports, so this pairing is a new take on an old idea.
Mao Feng Shui proved to be a very versatile pairing partner to a wide range of cheeses - it's a lighter grassy, slightly sweet tea with hints of toastiness. This warm, comforting blend complemented blue cheeses very well, especially Crater Lake Blue and Caveman Blue. Also a hit with Crater Lake Blue - Lord Bergamot (Smith's take on the classic Earl Grey) - this tea's floral notes blended nicely with the pungent blue molds, something I wouldn't have suspected until I tried it. Darjeeling's floral tendencies might behave similarly.
A couple of other teas showed an elastic range and complemented a variety of flavor profiles: Pu-erh has such interesting earthy, complex flavors which brought out an essential element in a variety of cheeses that I hadn't realized was there before; Fez, a green tea/mint blend, was really enjoyable on its own and also went very nicely with Rogue Creamery TouVelle. I suspect Fez might also pair nicely with more subtle bloomy rinded cheeses.
Several other Oregon cheeses gravitated toward the darker end of the tea spectrum: Pholia Farm Hillis Peak was a natural with Yunnan tea, and Willamette Valley Cheese Co. Perrydale worked very well with Brahmin's Choice, a full bodied black tea blend (Assam/Ceylon). Both of these cheeses are creamy, rich, deep and a bit on the sharper side.
I'm looking forward to playing around with tea and cheese much more in the future. In my experience tea/cheese pairings are somewhat more nuanced and subtle compared to the big, bold hit you get in your mouth from beer or wine with cheese...so you have to pay attention. Tea kind of does that to you anyway - it makes you slow down and refocus. In this case, the end result of all that focus is that you'll open the door to a new world of pairing possibilities.
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Steven Smith Teamaker 1626 NW Thurman Portland, OR 503-719-8752 open M-F 9-5:30
Find Smith Tea retail outlets here.