Some Meat with Your Cheese?

Pairing is hard. All flavors are subjective, but when you put two elements together, intending to create an elusive third flavor experience, the possible variations pile up. When I was first teaching cheese I learned wine pairing at the side of Josh Wesson, founder of the brilliant Best Cellars. He gave two possible paths to both harmonious pairing and marriage. The first path: likes with likes (put two acerbic people/pairings together, their sourness meets, hopefully recedes and other qualities become apparent). Or, the second path: opposites attract. ‘Nuff said.  I still use this rationale though I now recognize that these two paths basically suggest that anything could be a good pairing.

When it comes to cheese and cured meats, however, I’ve found it’s all about opposites. Unlike wine, or beer, or spirits when your cheese-pairing companion is also a fat, protein and salt-laden morsel, you’d best proceed with caution lest you wind up feeling kind of sick. 

Cured meats fall into two major groups: whole muscle or encased. This is especially important to pairing as whole muscle meats (think: leg of prosciutto) are dry-cured (salted, hung to dry and sometimes smoked) while encased meats (think: a salami) are fermented (ground meat, fat, salt, possibly other seasonings plus nitrites or nitrates are encased, ferment and slowly age in a humid environment).  Point being: those whole muscle meats tend to be sweeter, nuttier and more “meaty” in flavor compared with the encased meats that often have a discernible “tang” as well as intense flavors of, say, black pepper, red pepper, fennel, truffle, and so on.

Another wizened wine-o pairing precept is what grows together goes together. When in doubt, wine and food made in the same region tend to be good together. This one is true for cheese and cured meats as well, but the flavor rationale is more broadly instructive. To start with a classic:

Parmigiano Reggiano and Prosciutto di Parma: As entwined as star-crossed lovers, these two begin their partnership at the source. Famously, they whey by-product of Parm production is fed to the hogs whose back legs become Prosciutto di Parma. Like all whole muscle cured meats, Prosciutto di Parma is (or should be) sliced in nearly transparent sheets, neatly trimmed with a ribbon of fat. On the tongue it’s diaphanous, melting away into an elegantly restrained whiff of sweet butter and hazelnut. Parmigiano Reggiano, meanwhile, is coarse and craggy. Its acidity, the tang in the mouth, is pronounced. It shares toasted and nutty flavors but has a leanness thanks to its partially skimmed milk. Lessons learned:

  • Texture matters. A floppy, mushy or semisoft cheese alongside a buttery thin slice of meat lacks necessary contrast
  • Acidity matters. In this case it’s the cheese, in other cases it’s the meat. But one element needs to contribute some sensation of tart, citrus, mouthwateringy-ness to cut fat and protein
  • Complementary flavors concentrate and focus on what’s shared (in a pleasant and sometimes revelatory way) if you can rely on other elements for contrast

Another classic that works on these principles:

Speck, the lightly smoked whole muscle meat from Italy’s Alto Adige finds brilliant companionship with a cheese texturally akin to Parm but flavorwise something totally different: Piave. Here, the astringency comes from the (albeit low resin) wood the meat is smoked over while the cheese is bursting with pineapple and tropical fruit notes. The savory/sweet roles are reversed from Parm and Prosciutto.

Let’s talk salami (encased meats). Or, when meat is your cracker.

Small format links, cured slowly over time and sliced into quarter inch coins become vehicles for spreading and even dipping with the right cheeses. Many of these boast spices, garlic, smoke or heat that introduce a third flavor component to play around with. One of my all-time greatest:

1. Paprika and cayenne-laden chorizo (Olympic Provisions’ Chorizo Navarre gets my vote) dipped into a round of perfectly ripened La Serena. La Serena is a thistle-coagulated cheese a bit airier than custard and full of tart, vegetal, some would say sour notes. The cheese manages to cool the heat, and you’re left with sweet paprika, garlic and something asparagusy. Another take on this is a thin layer of fresh ricotta or goat cheese. Another favorite is River’s Edge Up in Smoke, a leaf-wrapped ball of smoked goat cheese. 

Other “cooling” cheeses (albeit not dip-intoable) that do well alongside smoky, spicy or gamy meats (think wild boar, duck, or good old fashioned red pepper) are those that preserve the lactic notes of fresh milk, with the earthen notes of age, such as Landaff Creamery Landaff or Kirkham’s Lancashire.

Very few European cured meats make it to the U.S. and there are so many excellent producers here that I recommend you find a “local” maker inspired by Europe’s traditions. The best include:

Olympic Provisions

Olli Salumeria

Creminelli Fine Meats

La Quercia

S. Wallace Edwards & Sons