Apples and Cheese

applesncheese.jpgCrisp like the new autumn breeze, sweet like the joys of family gatherings, and tart like the season’s change from warm to cold, the apple is the expression of fall. And though they can last all winter long, there is no substitute for a specimen in season, when the apple’s flowery juice tends to explode brilliantly from beneath that red-green covering.

Apples also make for an almost-perfect companion to cheese, as the balance of tartness and sweetness is a phenomenon common to both. These days, the Union Square Greenmarket is teeming with apples of every kind, New York State being a particularly great area for growing them. Seeing the surfeit, I decided to do an informal apple and cheese tasting event with my wife and her brother and sisters, who happened to be coming over for a visit. I picked out ten, yes ten, varieties of apples as well as five cheeses to try with them.

Picking the apples was fairly straightforward—I went with some of my old favorites (Stayman Winesap, Honeycrisp, Suncrisp, Mutsu), as well as some that I keep hearing about but have never tried (Cameo, Jonathan, Macoun). Rounding out the list were Gala, which I picked for its sweetness, Idared, to see how a cooking apple would fare, and Granny Smith, which is a famous pair for blue cheeses.
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For the cheeses, I headed over to Artisanal, with some preconceived notions but no specifics. I knew I wanted one of the lush, creamy/chalky, French goat cheeses, as well as one of their washed-rind stinkers. I wanted a Cheddar and a Blue, which are so customarily paired with apples, as well as a nutty Swiss cheese. Thanks to Karin, who made great suggestions from behind the counter at Artisanal, I ended up with five excellent picks: Clacbitou, Pont L’Evêque, Fiscalini Farms Cheddar, Bleu des Basques, and Sbrinz.
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I am used to pairing wine and cheese, but I wasn’t convinced that pairing apples and cheese would have the same effect. I wondered whether the apples would represent enough heterogeneity of taste so as to make the pairings meaningful. My doubt was answered. Just as with wine, some pairings elevated both apple and cheese to new heights, while others were quite awful. There were some varieties that paired poorly across the board, such as the Idared, an apple traditionally cooked rather than eaten fresh. On the flipside, the Stayman Winesap, perhaps my favorite variety, paired well with almost every cheese. The cheeses that seemed to succeed more often than not were the Clacbitou (the French goat cheese) and the Bleu des Basques (the French blue, similar to Roquefort).

The best pairings of the bunch were both with the Clacbitou, first with the Stayman Winesap, whose aromatic sweetness blended perfectly with the lemony tartness of the goat cheese, elevating both to greater heights; second, with the Suncrisp apple, a citrusy-sweet variety, where the combination of the two brought out a distinct pepperiness that wasn’t present in either food alone. The Stayman Winesap with the Bleu des Basques was also notable, the pair highlighting a smokiness in the cheese that was only vaguely noticeable on its own.

The worst pairings involved the Pont L’Evêque, whose assertive flavor requires an equally assertive partner. When paired with both the Honeycrisp and the Idared, there was a bitterness that emerged that was almost unbearable. The Pont L’Evêque faired better, however, with the Macoun, a spicy sweet variety that was able to take the cheese on head-to-head.

The Fiscalini Cheddar went best with the tart-sweet Mutsu, and the Sbrinz paired really nicely with the Macoun. We all agreed, though, that the Sbrinz was so good on its own that none of the pairings really did the cheese justice. I was also surprised at how poorly the Granny Smith faired. I thought that apple’s tartness would work especially well with the goat cheese (a tart cheese) as well as the blue cheese (where the sweetness would balance the tartness). Ultimately, however, the Granny Smith was just not flavorful enough to stand up in a pairing, and ended up getting lost in the shuffle more often than not. It worked best with the Cheddar and the Sbrinz, but even then the pairing was far from sublime.

All told, the activity was a great learning experience—I often feel overwhelmed and uninformed about the numerous varieties of apples out there. In fact setting up tastings like this is a great way to learn about new foods. They really get your mouth and brain working, and are fun and satisfying to boot. ‘Tis the season also for pears, and I assume a similar round of pear-apple tastings would also yield…ahem…fruitful results. Anyway, enjoy the fall harvest and eat more cheese!