If Max McCalman were a cheese, he would be Mimolette – dry, vaguely sour, with a touch of sweetness. He never smiles. He rarely raises a brow or changes his tone of voice, but if you listen carefully you will detect the passionate connoisseur living below the dense crust.
On Monday night, I met Max McCalman, author of Mastering Cheese – a book so fascinating and brilliantly written, I keep it on my nightstand. No other cheese book that I’ve read imparts as much expertise so beautifully. Although it’s designed like a textbook, it reads like a thriller – well, sort of. You have to be the kind of reader who shivers pleasurably at the thought of Pencillium Roqueforti.
Monday’s meeting was a French wine and cheese tasting with McCalman, who is rumored to maintain hundreds of spreadsheets on just such pairings. Since 1997, he has catalogued and ranked every wine-and-cheese combination he’s eaten, uploading favorites to his phone for quick consultation at Picholine. Now he is the figurehead at Artisanal.
All this to say, I trembled within as I rode the train from Philadelphia to New York.
The tasting was held at the French Institute (FIAF). Think berets, women in good shoes. Seven cheeses were arranged in fans at each place setting, along with three wines. Then came score sheets, baguette rounds, and lipsticked smiles.
Here is what we sipped:
Haut-Marin, Sauvignon Colombard, 2009
Oberbergen, Pinot Noir Réserve, 2008
Domaine Bellegarde, Cuvée Thibault, 2004
Here are the cheeses, supplied by Lactalis:
1. Président Saint Maure
2. Le Châtelain Brie
3. Istara Ossau-Iraty
4. Boule d’Or Mimolette
5. Pont de la Pierre Cantal
6. Pochat & Fils Beaufort
7. Société Roquefort
The wines – two white, one red – all shared a fruity quality, verging on too sweet for my taste. And yet, they worked with every cheese! Some combinations were better than others, but it was curious to note how each wine bent and shifted, drawing out different flavors from the seven cheeses.
For example: Beaufort, a complex Alpine cheese similar to Comté, tasted flat with the Sauvignon, flowery against the Pinot Noir, and cheddary astride the Jurancon Cuvée Thibault.
Another surprise: Brie Châtelain + Pinot Noir Réserve = cherry cobbler. I didn’t care for this wine (I kept smelling soy sauce and spare ribs), but the Brie brought out the loveliest cherry notes.
Here are a few other gems from the evening:
- White wines are easier to pair with cheese than reds.
- Scrimp on the wine but splurge on the cheese – it will make the wine taste better.
- Sauvignon Blanc and goat’s milk cheeses “are pals.”
- Eating the caramelized crust of your baguette makes cheese harder to digest.
- If you don’t like the look of blue cheese, think of the mold as “little blue-green flowers.”
- The appetite for cheese in the U.S. has tripled since 1997.
The tasting gave me a new appreciation for wine and cheese pairings – while it’s fun to play around at home, the wisdom of a maitre fromager certainly makes a difference. And now I know a little more about my cheese idol, including what he has for breakfast.
No, not cheese. Espresso with honey. Later, he eats cheese throughout the day -- 2 pounds a week. His cholesterol is perfect.
For more of McCalman's expertise on wine and cheese pairings, check out Artisanal, where he offers information, classes, and more.