Tea and Cheese: A Tutored Tasting in Geneva

As any athlete knows cross-training is one of the most effective ways to improve overall conditioning and performance, boost weight loss, and re-energize a stale exercise routine. It’s such a specialized niche that there are shoes designed to enhance each work-out, machines to provide a seamless transition from one activity to the next, and individual programs developed by trainers to maximize results. A properly designed program will keep the mind and body in a constant state of readiness with every muscle primed to fire on demand.

For the wine drinker “cross-training” means something entirely different with results more sensory than physical. It’s my belief that critical tasting is a transferable skill that can be applied to any number of unrelated gustatory and olfactory stimuli. I cross-train to recalibrate my senses, to experience new sensations, and to tweak my wine-centric vocabulary. Sometimes cross-training with different foods and beverages reminds me that things like texture or temperature are important considerations even when evaluating wine.

There are other benefits as well: bringing all of my senses to bear on something other than wine is a form of relaxation and relief from the kind of performance anxiety I didn’t even know I had. It’s a way of tasting and analyzing without stress and it can refresh the mind when it’s time to return to the often tedious work of studying wine.

While I’ve been a part of many sensory panels involving wine, beer, liquor of all kinds, olive oil, and honey, I’ve never focused on two obvious candidates for evaluation: tea and cheese. So when my wife suggested we attend a seminar pairing the two — hosted by her favorite tea guru and my favorite cheese monger — I couldn’t say no.

Véronique Gallais from the Geneva outpost of Betjeman & Barton, the iconic tea emporium of Paris, and Dominique Ryser of Fromagerie Bruand, Geneva’s top address for cheese, are long-time collaborators in this unlikely pursuit. Their timed-to-the minute presentation is the result of thirteen years of nibbling and sipping together and figuring out what works and what doesn’t. I bow to this kind of passion especially when they make it look so easy. We in the wine world would do well to wear our passion as conspicuously.

This particular evening was spent at Dominique’s newest project, Bruandises, a temple to cheese and charcuterie in Geneva’s Saint-Gervais neighborhood. It’s a small family shop and an adjunct to their main shop located in the Halle de Rive, a kind of upscale public market for wealthy Genevans. The expanded location affords them the opportunity to hold classes and tastings on site with the exact infrastructure required.

The tasting took place in three flights with three cheeses per flight. While Véronique prepared each tea, one at a time, according to rigid time and temperature specifications, Dominque spoke briefly about each cheese. We were admonished to take a sip of tea before sampling the corresponding cheese. This, we were told, is to warm the mouth which aids in highlighting the particular synergies of the combination.

I told you these classes were thirteen years in the making.

The tasting began with an “apero” featuring a cold-brewed, bergamot-scented Earl Grey and two of Dominique’s GRTA certified pork creations  — a tangy, slightly acetic, air-dried saucisson and a fabulous cured pork loin that is the equal to any lonza from Italy or caña de lomo from Spain that I’ve tasted. The claim of local provenance is no exaggeration either; the pork is from an organic farm near my home. In fact, I have met these pigs many times on my morning walk. Come each December, they disappear one by one, and now I know where they go.

Véronique’s technique of cold-brewing — overnight in the refrigerator — and the use of bottled spring water makes for a delicate infusion without the slightest bitterness. Here the delicate, smokey, bergamot-scented tea paired beautifully with the rosemary- and marjolaine-dusted pork loin. It was the perfect beginning to whet the palate and arouse curiosity.

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Before and After: The Piggies of Compois

The Tasting — First Flight

(1) Chällerhocker (St. Gallen, Switzerland) paired with Tamaryokucha (Japan) — Chällerhocker is a washed rind cow’s milk cheese from the canton of St. Gallen in northeast Switzerland. It is a hard cheese with a pale yellow color and small holes. I love its creamy smooth texture and clean, brown butter aroma with grounding notes of grass — not at all unlike a young, fruity Gruyère.

Its mate, a bright green Tamaryokucha, is complex with notes of citrus, grass, seaweed, peat, and most surprisingly, berries. It’s a very difficult tea to characterize but most connoisseurs recognize a similarity to Sencha. This pairing seems to accentuate the grassy elements of the cheese while cutting through its fatty elements leaving a clean, floral aftertaste.

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(2) Mühlistein (St. Gallen, Switzerland) paired with Jade Oolong (Taiwan) — Mühlistein is German for millstone which is exactly what this large, hole-in-the-center wheel covered in grey mold looks like. It’s made from the milk of small — by Swiss standards — Jersey cows renowned for their rich milk high in protein and beta carotene, the organic compound responsible for its distinct yellow coloring. It has the aroma of sweet butter with a sharp, slightly acidic flavor.

Its partner Oolong is from Taiwan (Formosa) and comes from the island’s highest elevations. It’s picked during the late spring harvest which imbues it with floral aromas and deep vegetal notes. It’s clean and delicate and works well with the lactic acidity of the cheese as it seems to soften the sharpness and smooth out the texture.

(3) Piora (Ticino, Switzerland) paired with Hōjicha (Japan) — Piora is, by many accounts, Switzerland’s greatest alpage cheese. Never heard of it? You’re forgiven if you haven’t — there are fewer than 3000 wheels made each season and the trek to buy one requires a pilgrimage to the Piora Valley in Ticino, a time-consuming trip that is best made by train, bus, and one of Europe’s steepest funiculars. Even after all of that there’s a fair bit of hiking required. Dominique’s allocation is collected on site and stored in a remote cheese cave in Fribourg for the year-long affinage.

The valley itself sits at 2,000 meters in a high meadow that is home to some of the rarest flowers and herbs of the Alpine range. It is this flora which gives Piora its particular scent and flavor which is a bit funky and gamy with mushroom, truffle, and deeply fruity characteristics. Piora can only be made in the months between June and September each year and the milk is always unpasteurized.

Hōjicha is a roasted green tea that is lower in caffeine and anti-oxidant compounds. For this reason it is slightly less nutritious but full of flavor and never astringent. This was my favorite pairing of the night. Both the cheese and the tea were improved (as if improvement was possible) by the presence of the other. I loved the caramel, candied orange peel, seaweed and pain grillée character of the tea and how it all framed the subtle funk of the cheese. Absolutely delicious!

Second Flight

(1) Tomme de Brebis du Moléson à la Truffe Fraîche (Fribourg, Switzerland) paired with Yin Zhen (China) — Dominique was as animated describing this cheese as any other during the tasting. He was quick to point out that artificial truffle flavors are quite common in the cheese industry. This one is made with the addition of 3% by weight black truffles from the Drôme department of France.

It’s made from the milk of sheep pastured in an alpine valley in Vaud beneath the scenic Moléson peak. It has a slight barnyard, gamy, fruity aroma with a lactic, slightly sharp flavor. The fresh truffle savor does not dominate but is an intriguing back-note, particularly in the finish.

I loved the idea of serving this with a cold-brewed Yin Zhen (White Hair Silver Needle) but I have to admit I never would have thought to pair the two myself. Yin Zhen is an early spring pick with a faintly floral, slightly buttery aroma and an amazing honeycomb flavor and mineral finish. This pairing is a lesson that opposites can get along and even enhance each other’s best qualities.

N.B. My use of the term “mineral” is exactly how I would use it to describe a wine. I asked Véronique if the term is used in “tea talk” and she said it most certainly is. I later discovered in writings about tea that the term is widely used and seems to predate its appearance in wine-speak. Like with wine, I see minerality as a structural element even though it can have a vague scent and, sometimes, a subtle flavor.

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(2) Tomme 1508 (Fribourg, Switzerland) paired with Rukeri (Rwanda) and Pointes Blanches (China) — 1508 refers to the elevation from which this cheese comes and the mix of alpine herbs one finds there. This is a cow’s milk cheese that offers up a number of seemingly disparate elements that work seamlessly together. I found notes of spice and heat from the herbs and pepper, and sweet notes of butter and even pineapple. This was especially fragrant in the retro-nasal phase.

The paired tea is a blend of green tea from the Rukeri Estate in Rwanda and smoked black teas from China. There is a toasted aroma with complimentary bacon, smoke and a wonderful mineral dryness. This was an especially synergistic pairing with layers of added complexity from the marriage.

(3) Tomme au Foin (Savoie, France) paired with Sencha First Flush 2019 (Japan) — Tomme au Foin is a traditional cow’s milk variant of the more famous Tomme de Savoie. The difference lies in its aging, which takes place in a nest of hay. The usual Tomme floral and fruity notes are present but there are also some deeply earthy and pungent notes from its time in hay. This is one of the most complex tommes from Savoie I have tasted.

Sencha is the classic Japanese green tea with its bright green color and umami aromatics. This one is from an early spring harvest and then slightly roasted. It is textured, vegetal, very grassy, and brightly flavored. This is the one case where the tea dominates the cheese which is evidenced by the absolutely clean finish and almost antiseptic properties of the tea.

Third Flight

Chèvre Frais (Vaud, Switzerland) paired with Lung Ching (China) — As divinely fresh and clean tasting a chèvre as you will find. This astonishingly bright white cheese is from the famous biodynamic goatherd Jean-François Burnet (he previously appeared in this blog, here) who has developed his own bacterial strain and a healthy dose of disdain for the Swiss cheese industry. He sells this cheese a mere three days after harvesting the milk, so it is equal parts fresh, sweet, clean and sour. It is completely delicious and not at all goaty.

Lung Ching, perhaps better known as Dragon Well, is a pan-roasted green tea that seems to expand in combination with this cheese. It has a vegetative and grassy aroma combined with a nutty, mineral dryness. It’s more delicate than the Sencha with a bit more acidity and a subtle saline component. The saltiness is accentuated with the cheese, particularly in the finish. This was one of the most successful pairings of the evening.

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Vacherin Fribourgeoise au Poivre (Fribourg, Switzerland) paired with Panyong Golden Needle (China) — This classic, semi-hard cow’s milk cheese from Fribourg is “enhanced” with peppercorns from Madagascar. It tastes like a fondue Fribourgeoise in solid form which, coincidentally, some people like to garnish with freshly ground pepper. It’s buttery and slightly gamy with some salty notes and a pleasant spiciness.

Panyong Golden Needle is a red tea that is plucked in April. It was one of the most full-flavored teas of the evening with a rich, almost malty heft. I was actually surprised to see it stand up to the pepper of the cheese but it succeeded beyond expectations. I loved the warm, clean, mineral finish it left behind, which made diving in for another bite of cheese a real pleasure. This was another top pairing.

Stilton Colston Bassett Dairy (Nottingham, England) paired with Darjeeling First Flush Arya 2019 (India) — There is no denying the pungency of an authentic Stilton and they don’t get more authentic than this prize-winning beauty from the Colton Bassett Dairy in Nottingham — England’s smallest commercial dairy. It is hand-curdled using animal rennet (unheard of these days) yielding a hugely earthy, tangy, medicinal-tasting Stilton of epic proportions. It is utterly creamy, velvety and sticky in texture and melts slowly in the mouth.

Its mate was an olive green, first blush Darjeeling from the famous Arya tea estate. At first its sweet, delicate, melon and white flower aroma seemed a mis-match for the pungency of the cheese but in the end the tea salvaged a draw as it managed to tame the sharpness and assertive flavors of the cheese and actually left a floral note to finish. Only dedicated experts — and trial and error — could have figured this one out.

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The evening finished with a heart-stopping (almost literal) Meringue au Double Crème de Gruyère dusted with a fine Matcha (Japan). It was as beautiful to look at as it was delicious.

Addresses

Betjeman & Barton, 35 35 Rue St. Joseph, Carouge, www.barton.ch, +41 22 301 20 30

Bruandises, 2 Rue Rousseau, Geneva, www.bruandises.com, +41 22 732 44 00

Bruand, Halle de Rive, Geneva, www. fromage-bruand.ch, +41 22 736 93 50

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