Wine and cheese are like Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire - gorgeous together and perfectly suited. But, like any great relationship, they're each complicated and require a little finesse and understanding to work well together.
Bruno and I have long been lovers of the cheese and wine duo. On one of our first dates, Bruno packed a picnic that included Wheat Thins, a block of sharp cheddar, and a bottle of cheap red wine - it was perfect. Though the Wheat Thins in our house are now mostly inhaled by our small children, I attribute our affinity for cheese and wine to him. To this day, at least once a month we put the kids to bed and have a dinner of cheese and wine and several accompaniments.
We've always wanted to host a party featuring wine and cheese, but we thought it might be fussy and cost a fortune. After a trip to visit Bruno's cousin in France, we were introduced to a very unfussy, lovely way to combine cheese and wine in a casual and delicious way.
Our French dinner involved simple cheeses and charcuterie, fresh baguettes, and bottles upon bottles of table wine. Everything was wrapped in butcher's paper and baker's twine, and we ate the meal right off the wrapping. The food was simple, but the ingredients were so fresh and thoughtfully combined that the meal has remained one of our all time favorites.
Last weekend, we aimed to recreate that menu and feeling for a small group of friends and we want to share all the details with you in the hopes that you're inspired to do the same.
We began planning the party a few weeks ago, and we certainly did our research (this, admittedly, is a bit fussy). Using our sweet dinner in France as a springboard we knew we wanted our party to include a few cheeses, various breads and crackers, wine a' plenty, and several small side dishes (e.g. meats, fruit, olives).
I read several foodie and entertainment blogs to build on this inspiration (you can visit many of them by perusing my Pinterest board: Wine & Cheese Pairing Party), but promised myself that I would strive to keep it simple. I also read a couple of great cookbooks. My favorite being, Little Paris Kitchen by Rachel Khoo.
The most helpful step I made during the planning phase was to visit a local wine and cheese shop called Surdyk's. Not only do that have oodles of cheese and wine (they have a separate wine shop and deli), but their staff is incredibly knowledgeable and helpful.
Prior to visiting the store, I'd read that white wines tend to pair better with cheese because they have lower levels of tannins than reds. This is something the consultants at Surdyk's echoed. In the end, I ended up with several bottles of both red and white wine (10, to be exact - which was about 4 bottles too many for our party of 8). All of the wines paired beautifully with the cheese, but the whites and roses were definitely more complex and delicious.
I began my trip in the wine shop where we selected a range of very affordable wines (they ranged from $10-18). I then brought my list of wines to the deli, where an incredibly knowledgeable cheese master helped me select 5 cheeses to pair with my wines.
Here's the pairing menu we followed (cheese followed by wine):
- Ossau Iraty (Sheep's Milk) - Pinot Noir, Rosé (Dry)
- Scharfe Maxx 365 (Cow's Milk) - Vouvray, Rosé (Sweet)
- Montgomery Cheddar (Cow's Milk) - Malbec, Syrah
- Brillat Savarin (Cow's Milk) - Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio
- Bleu des Basques (Sheep's Milk) - All
Once I had a good idea of what to serve, I focused on how to present everything in a simple way. Using a combination of marble and wooden servers I arranged the cheese, crackers, and bread.
Serving Ware: We made our own marble servers using marble tiles with furniture pads adhered to the bottom. It's the easiest DIY in the world - here's a great tutorial.
I also ordered these bamboo appetizer plates because I couldn't resist the clever wine glass (or thumb) notch. Frankly, these little plates were the bomb and will get a lot of use.
One of the best tricks I learned along the way was to divide dishes up among several serving platters (we used lots of small bowls and ramekins). This makes the food feel special, prevents log jams at favorite dishes, and makes the presentation so pretty. It's like creating little vignettes of deliciousness and repeating them around the table.
Details: I mixed in a variety of white dinner candles and created simple labels using stock vector images (of cows, sheep, and goats, of course). I made some of the labels using Sculpey clay, and additional ones out of card stock.
We made simple polkadot cocktail napkins using fabric paint, the round end of a wine cork, and plain white napkins we had on hand.
Menu Board: To help our guests decide how to pair the wine and cheese, we created a big menu board with our recommendations. To make the board I used foam core, chalkboard paint, chalkboard markers and this tutorial. Using a big menu board like this made it easy for everyone to make pairings.
We also provided notecards for our guests to record their favorite duos and keep for future reference.
Along with all the wine and cheese we wanted to offer some additional small bites of food that would compliment our pairing menu. We chose a small selection of crudités, olives, fruits, nuts, meats, and desserts.
For a list of our favorite recipes and combinations, see below:
Bacon Wrapped Asparagus Bundles
Marinated Spanish Olives
Asparagus Crudites with Mayonnaise Verte
Blackberry Fennel Pizza (we made ours using puff pastry)
Lentil Pate (Mock Liver)
Grilled Lamb Riblets
Carmel Apple Grapes
Bacon Wrapped Dates
Chocolate Caramel Crack(ers)
Assorted Fruit Preserves and Membrillo
Crackers & Bread:
We served fresh baked bread from our favorite neighborhood cafe, and used a variety of crackers; from simple flat bread with sea salt to our very favorite Potter's Crisps.
The beauty of this kind of party is that the stars of the show are the wine and cheese - two things that require zero cooking or preparation. Supporting the pairing menu with a variety of sides (many of which also require no cooking) was easy to manage and plan.
The end result was a party that was as fun to host as it was to attend. Because the menu was simple and easy to prepare in advance, Bruno and I felt like we were guests at our own party, and really, what more can you ask for!