This year I'd like to propose a toast to throwing all cheese-board rules out the window. Let's forget about having one cheese from each style of milk: a soft, a hard, a kid-friendly option. For the 2012 holiday board I want decadence, reward and indulgence. Bring out the French cheese and champagne. Champagne is especially harmonious matched with buttery soft bloomy rinds or tangy goat options, and its effervescence and acidity pairs well with the richness of cheese, cleansing the palate between bites. Each of the cheeses below is a visual showstopper, crafted with exceptional care and impeccably balanced in flavour. Above all I would consider each a "special-occasion cheese" whether trying to spoil your guests or just treating yourself.
If buying one champagne to serve with all four selections, a medium-bodied sparkler would stand up well to the stronger cheeses while not overpowering the more mellow choices. The salty/savoury notes in these cheeses would also pair well if you like your champagne with a hint of sweetness.
In the 1970s, the cheese-makers at Fromagerie Rouzaire decided to age their triple-cream bloomy rind cheese Brillat-Savarin an extra few weeks in the caves. They developed Pierre Robert, a cheese that not only has a more earthy, salty flavour, but its texture resembles whipped cream – melt-in-your-mouth is no exaggeration. The salty kick perfectly balances the creamy luxury before you sip your champagne. Bubbles and fat, it's a happy pairing.
Looks alone give this cheese the stature to be served with champagne. Made in the Loire Valley, which is known for its goat cheese, Valençay's regal pyramid shape and charcoal-coated rind develops an attractive mottled white, grey and bluish edible mould. The cheese is softer when young and gets firmer as it ages. With a soft lemon tang, it reveals refreshing flavours with hints of nuttiness. Acidity meets acidity in this pairing and it works like a charm.
This wrinkled, golden-orange cheese has been made in (and around) the town of Langres in France's Champagne region since the 18th century. It's a washed-rind cheese similar to Époisses, which is also washed with marc, a spirit distilled from the skins and seeds left from winemaking. The rind will smell barny, its supple paste will get silkier and oozier as it ripens. When pairing with champagne, I would suggest skipping the rind where the strongest flavour resides. The interior paste is full-flavoured, meaty, salty and lip-smacking but not overpowering – a great example of balance. Tradition says you should pour a little champagne into the indented top of the cheese – a wonderfully extravagant idea.
Since it makes a great partner to a brut champagne, I couldn't resist a detour to Northern Italy for this famous, raw cow's-milk cheese. Its salty notes and nutty complexity pair well with a toasty glass of champers. Texture plays an interesting role – the bubbles in the drink make an amiable partner for the fine grain and flaky quality of the aged cheese.
Sue Riedl blogs about cheese and other edibles at cheeseandtoast.com.