“We’re calling this one ‘Life on Mars’,” says Luke Williams running his finger over the pockmarked surface of a round, reddish cheese. “It arrived on the day David Bowie passed away.”
Made by Barry Sergeant of Beatrix Dairy in the Free State, it’s a “lactic curd cows’ milk cheese”. Interestingly, the rind is washed in a ginger brandy. “It’s packed with funky flavours and deep umami wafts,” says Luke.
Strange, cosmic cheeses have a habit of landing at Culture Club Cheese. Owned by married couple, Luke Williams and Jessica Merton, this cheddar-yellow painted cheese shop and restaurant is in Cape Town’s Bree Street.
This little shop of cultured stuff is no accident. Luke’s passion began as monger at La Fromagerie—a cheese lover’s utopia—in London. He went on to study the microbiology of milk cultures. He’s also an affineur, which is the term for people who age cheese.
The majority of the cheeses he sells are local, with around a fifth imported. As Luke likes to say: “We’re champions of local, small cheese-makers.” There are over 100 cheeses to try, all refrigerated and stacked along what the shop calls the ‘Wall of Cheese’.
A formidable selection of dairy calls for a formidable sommelier. Joining us—clattering up the stairs with a crate of wines—is Jean-Vincent Ridon, sommelier and Signal Hill winemaker extraordinaire, among many other hats this enigmatic Frenchman wears. We’re going to be looking at wine and cheese pairing with new eyes (aka noses and palates).
We get straight down to it. The most important factors in pairing cheese and wine comes down to fat versus acidity.
“You also need to be careful that the tannins in wine don’t overwhelm the creaminess of the cheese,” says Jean-Vincent. “Rather play with acidity.” Although, he admits, the tomato leaf flavour typically found in Cabernet Franc is often complementary to cheese.
An overhead lamp made of a hollowed out Parmesan wheel casts a halo around Luke as he slices into the Reblochon, ‘a stinker’.
“Once you touch it, you keep it for the day,” laughs Jean-Vincent.
“This is another fantastic raw milk cheese from the expert hands of Barry Sergeant,” enthuses Luke.
“His Reblochon can be large or small, the larger version is crumblier than its French namesake, but is equally as pungent, if not more so. Think brandy, bacon, Marmite, Lapsang Souchong tea, oxtail, teenagers’ socks, and more.”
Jean-Vincent pulls a cork out of a bottle of Cape Point Vineyards Isliedh, a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon. “Sauvignon Blanc on its own can be too phenolic for cheese. As a cool climate wine, with no astringency, it’s a good match for spicy cheeses.
“The Sémillon in the blend gives the mouth-coating effect that you look for when pairing wine and cheese,” he continues.
Why is this important? “Cheese is a blend of protein and fat. Wine will usually overpower your taste buds, so it needs to have a viscous effect in order to balance the cheese fat that would otherwise saturate your senses.”
Our focus shifts to the next cheese: Belnori's Forest Phantom, a goats’ cheese, aged in ash hailing from Bapsfontein in Gauteng.
“The white mould grows in the first couple of weeks and is swiftly followed by a brain-like ‘Geotrichum’ [type of fungi] rind,” says Luke.
“You can make boots from it,” quips Jean-Vincent, alluding to its crocodile skin appearance.
The cheese gets its name from the white mould that grows around it, which is referred to as a ‘forest’. And while attractive to look at, the vegetable ash also adds alkalinity to the cheese. The ash, incidentally, was used in times before refrigeration to keep the flies off the curd.
We first try a Chardonnay as a pairing with the cheese, but it falls flat. “We need some greenness,” ponders Jean-Vincent eyeing the Spioenkop Riesling. There’s an instant match—both the wine and the cheese have the same grassy, lime characteristics.
Fiddling with a muselet on a bottle of Le Lude Cap Classique, Jean-Vincent pops the cork and the bubbly sprays—accidently—over the next cheese, the Pépé Charlot Buche. It seems we’ve just invented a new wash for the rind.
Washes originated as a protective measure in cheese making—in the old days it was safer to drink beer and wine than water, and the washes acted as a preservative. Now, cheese makers play with different washes (not just booze, brine is used too) to create a playground for bacteria.
Another log—not one doused in bubbly—of the Buche is taken from the wall. Made in Kommetjie, this cheese is similar to the classic Sainte Maure de Touraine from the Loire. “The centre is creamy-chalky and just inside the rind it is less acidic, with flavours of sweet chestnut,” says Luke as he hands around slivers of the cheese.
This unpasteurised cheese has been aged for three years, and as it ages the proteins get smaller, and in turn the flavours stronger with the centre getting richer and richer.
“Goats’ cheese usually calls for acidity, like a more floral Sauvignon Blanc,” says Jean-Vincent weighing up his wine choices. “Pure Sauvignon sometimes doesn’t have the length to support the mouth-coating effect.”
He selects the Ashbourne Sauvignon Blanc/Chardonnay for this pairing; the Chardonnay in the blend contributes to the mouth coating and length, while the Sauvignon highlights the fruitiness of the cheese.
The majority of the cheeses we taste have been made with raw milk. When asked if unpasteurised is truly better than pasteurised in the flavour department, Luke replies: “I prefer unpasteurised if given the choice, it is more complex; but the most important factor is quality.”
Jean-Vincent pops a beer (away from the cheese this time). “Barrel-aged, fermented, Trappist-style beer can go really well with aged cheese,” he says.
The ‘Stride Wide Baltic Porter’ from Gallows Hill is paired with one of the most popular cheeses at the Culture Club, de Pekelaar Boerenkaas from Paterson in the Eastern Cape. “Tiny tyrosine crystals dot this cheese,” says Luke. “It’s nutty, sweet and chocolaty.”
It’s a heavenly pairing. Both the beer and cheese carry through—the bitterness of the beer elevates the sweetness of the cheese.
We’re on to the last cheese, Ganzvlei's Blue Moon. Made from milk of free-range cows in the Garden Route, Luke declares it wild cheese at its best. He slides a knife through the wedge. “Due to the higher fat quantity of the Jersey milk used, this cheese can dry out more than other blues while still holding its structure.” It’s dense and creamy with dusty, salty, hazelnut flavours.
We reach for a fortified red, but find it too sweet. So, Jean-Vincent pours the Ataraxia Chardonnay—and it’s a completely harmonious pairing.
Any parting tips for wine and cheese pairing novices? “If in doubt, always go white,” says Jean-Vincent. “Go for the fresher, more acidic wines for younger cheeses, and rounder wines for the more mature ones. The upshot is, there’s always more than one pairing recipe to try.”
Words by Malu Lambert
Photography by Keli van der Weijde
Cheese, like wine, can be complex, which means a pairing of the two produces a world of taste possibilities, as Malu Lambert finds out