Pairing food with fermented drinks is one of the simplest and most accessible blisses in life. Elements in each can mirror, highlight or even smother the strong qualities — or imbalances — of the other. Pairings can render a meal more delicious than the sum of its parts, taking tasters on a sensory and intellectual magical mystery tour.
One of the keys to a successful pairing is choosing items produced in the same geographic area: Think oysters and Muscadet, mussels and Belgian ale … or, in Vermont, hard cider and cheese.
Cider, both soft and hard, has long been part of New England’s liquid landscape and was once a major presence on tables in these parts. After falling into obscurity for more than a century, hard cider is having a welcome renaissance. Veteran manufacturers such as Eden Ice Cider Company have been joined by a tide of artisanal cider makers producing styles ranging from still and sweet to dry and fizzy. Variations are constantly being unearthed and reclaimed, such as Citizen Cider’s dry rosé cider called bRosé (made with apples and blueberries), which is so versatile with food that it could seamlessly replace wine at the table.
Acting on the assumption that cider and cheese are natural BFFs in northern climes, I spent a few afternoons pairing the two, and it was a blast, as well as illuminating. If you simply tasted a spread of these cheeses one after another, you might find some very similar in texture and style. But sampling shards of each cheese against cider (or even beer or wine) throws their individual personalities into sharper relief, coaxing out grassy or nutty notes or making them taste saltier or creamier. Given the sheer number of local cheeses, the pairing possibilities are nearly endless, but I chose six cheeses and five ciders to play around with. Here are the pairings that most pleased my palate:
At first sip, bRosé may be mild in flavor, but its personality asserts itself against food. The cider’s fruity flavors make it a natural foil for cheeses with a lot of character, and its effervescence can slice through salty cheese with precision. bRosé blunted the salt of the Gore-Dawn-Zola and coaxed out the cheese’s nuttier notes. It also made the Cabot Clothbound Cheddar seem creamier than it actually was. But the best matches with bRosé were some morsels I dragged out of my fridge in a pairing frenzy — namely feta, Parmigiano-Reggiano and, best of all, fatty, spicy saucisson sec.
Dessert wine is a classic pairing for blue cheese, so it’s no surprise that the slightly honeylike Eden Ice Cider made Gore-Dawn-Zola taste like it was on steroids. A pairing with Cabot Clothbound Cheddar made the cider seem silky and the cheese saltier, while the Bonnieview Farm Coomersdale pairing was discordant. Eden Ice Cider found its best match in Ascutney Mountain, which it transformed into a superlatively complex cheese: Hints of caramel and lemon peel overlaid each other, while the cheese softened the cider’s edges and brought out its sweetness.
Surprisingly, this cider fought the Gore-Dawn-Zola every step of the way and wilted against some of the other cheeses. However, the Twig Farm Goat Tomme was a clear match — it made the cider’s flavors explode, highlighting previously hidden tannic and savory qualities that balanced its sweetness. For its part, the cider rendered the Twig Farm a melting, scrumptious, almost alpine treat. The Ascutney Mountain pairing was also good, emphasizing the cider’s long, sweet, juicy finish.
This cider faltered against the Gore-Dawn-Zola and Coomersdale, performed decently but not stunningly with the Clothbound Cheddar and Twig Farm and absolutely sang with the Oma, coaxing out the cheese’s citrusy notes and taking on airy and light qualities.
Ixnay on the Gore-Dawn-Zola — this pear cider was just OK with Twig Farm and pretty good with the Coomersdale. But when I paired a few sips with the Oma, this thinnish cider became both crisper and earthier, while the cheese morphed into a nuttier and creamier version of itself. The Clothbound Cheddar was a hit, too, quickening the cider into something fresh and almost saline.
It was gratifying to discover that almost every cider paired best with a different cheese, indicating a degree of nuance that speaks to the artistry and individual terroirs of local cider and cheese makers. Though the Oma was the perfect fit for at least two ciders, the Clothbound Cheddar was the most versatile cheese — it made almost nothing taste disagreeable, and generally brought out the best in whatever it touched. Twig Farm had so much character that it seemed to want to be on its own; only the Champlain Orchards Sparkling Ice Cider didn’t interfere with its expression.
While some of these products may seem alike to the casual taster, pairing highlights their subtle differences and suggests that, at least in the culinary world, soulmates do exist.
Cabot Clothbound Cheddar: a firm and slightly crumbly cheddar that is wrapped in muslin and aged for at least 10 months at the Cellars at Jasper Hill. It’s buttery, grassy and slightly nutty, with a caramel-like sweetness on the finish.
Twig Farm Goat Tomme: Semisoft and supple, this raw goat’s milk cheese is shot through with faintly barnyard-y goat flavors, as well as with nuts and a hint of mushrooms.
Cobb Hill Ascutney Mountain: a firm, raw cow’s milk cheese that combines fruity notes with wisps of grass. The brightest of the bunch.
Von Trapp Farmstead Oma: This creamy, dandelion-hued cheese tastes like the love child of an earthy goat tomme and a Brie, though it’s made with raw cow’s milk and has hints of hay and almonds.
Bonnieview Farm Coomersdale: This is a pungent, semifirm number made from raw sheep’s milk, with tons of character — it has subtle notes of wool and a just-after-the-rain earthy funk.
Green Mountain Blue Cheese Gore-Dawn-Zola: A crumbly and tangy cheese that combines stinky, moldy blue veins with ample flavors of roasted nuts, salt and acid.
Citizen Cider bRosé: This salmon-colored, fizzy cider is low in acid but high in effervescence. Its base ingredients of apples and blueberries are layered with faint but bright notes of cherry, cranberry, pear and quince.
Champlain Orchards Vermont Sparkling Ice Cider: a deep-gold, sweet hard cider made from McIntosh and Empire apples, with very fine bubbles that lend satisfying texture. Hints of ginger, honey and smoke make it fun to drink.
Eden Vermont Ice Cider Heirloom Blend: The 2011 vintage of this perennial cider — formerly known as Calville Blend — was just released last month. Its mélange of apples renders a full-bodied, off-dry cider with hints of pears, honey, roasted almond and muscat, with a tart but caramel-like finish.
Farnum Hill Semi-Dry Cider: The brightest of the ciders, this has a gentle mousse, only the barest hint of sweetness, pungent herbal and citrus notes and a vein of minerality.
Domaine de Lavoie Le Poiré de Lavoie: A silky pear ice cider from Québec that has a lemony hue and vibrant notes of citrus and flowers woven together with caramel and honey.