How to pair cheese with tea
To celebrate NZ Cheese Month we look at these sophisticated pairings and why they work so well. No wine required!
Pairing tea with cheese is now being taught in Masters-level gastronomy programmes in New Zealand and is happening in some of the most innovative restaurants in the world. Though the combo may sound surprising at first, most of us will be familiar with how satisfying a cuppa is with cheese on toast. There are good reasons why it works.
Dilmah’s “Tea Geek” (and cheese lover) Jon Houldsworth explains all and takes us through some matches made in heaven.
Why do cheese and tea work together so harmoniously?
Tea, like wine, has a broad range of texture and weight based on a tannin-like structure which balances with the proteins and fats in cheese, creating balance on the palate: from high-grown black teas like Nuwara Eliya Pekoe or First Flush Darjeeling, with their lighter structure and brighter herbal grassy notes, through to naturally fruity green teas or low-grown black teas with good full-bodied, bittersweet chewy tannins reminiscent of dried fig or raisins. The reason many people add milk to strong black tea is to balance the astringency and bitterness. Milk, like cheese, is of course dairy. The other important factor is warmth, which naturally rises from the palate into the back of the nose to amplify the flavour and almost ripen the cheese in your mouth. After you’ve swallowed the cheese, warm tea can lift the coating from your mouth and give you a secondary hit of more earthy or aromatic notes.
What should be considered?
Ultimately you’re looking for balance, between the mouthfeel and weight of the tea paired to the cheese as well as in flavour. A balance can just as easily be found through complementing or contrasting flavours and structure. A great example of flavour pairing is a softer-style cumin-seed gouda cheese paired to jasmine green tea. The seedy spice of cumin with the sweet floral notes of jasmine is an incredible marriage of flavour. Make sure to brew the jasmine green tea correctly, around 80C for 2-3 minutes, so it doesn’t get too bitter. That can overpower the fragrant jasmine.
How about if you are faced with a mixed cheeseboard?
A trend I’ve talked to a few restaurants about is including tea-paired cheeseboards after a meal. With reduced drink-driving limits it’s a sensible option to offer and works amazingly well. Serve up a few different teas in shot glasses to match different cheeses. Pick a range of cheese styles like something creamy, something aged and something flavoured or spiced. Choose a green tea for a brie, a black tea for aged cheese and, for the flavoured or spiced, something scented like jasmine, or herbal like chamomile.
What works best with a plain toasted cheese sandwich?
Just like melted cheese on toast, you’d match a good English Breakfast with no milk added to balance the stronger flavours of the cheddar and balance with the fats. It becomes a palate cleanser, particularly if you’re buttering the outside to make it golden brown.
Does iced tea have a place?
When the tea is iced it’s not as effective with cheese; the more subtle flavours within the teas are lost, along with the ability to lift the cheese from the palate. However, a salty-style cheese can go really well with a citrus iced tea or a Japanese sencha, served at room temperature, with a plate of fresh pear and manchego cheese. For something a little more unusual, Taiwan introduced the bubble tea trend and they’ve begun a new take called cheese tea! Basically like a whipped cream and cheese served on top of iced tea to tone down the natural bitterness in the tea.
And herbal infusions?
A lot of herbal infusions won’t pair as well because they don’t have the structure to balance with cheese that green, black or oolong teas do. Rosehip & Hibiscus or Peppermint would be a hard match. However, a softer tea like chamomile can work with something like a tangy goat’s cheese with its sweet notes of ripe green apple. In northern Italy a small family cheese company Caseificio La Via Lattea (The Milky Way) make raw milk goat’s cheese cloaked in chamomile that apparently permeates the cheese beautifully. A personal favourite is the amazing chilli cheddar scones from Marua Rd Cafe next to our office, paired to one of our new herbal infusions based on red rooibos with moringa, turmeric and chilli.
What effect do milk, sugar and lemon have?
Best to avoid milk and sugar when pairing with cheeses but, based on the complementing taste components of salty and sour, you could create balance from a slice of lemon in your tea with a salty-style cheese. Try the Swiss tradition of cheese fondue with strong black tea, with a slice of lemon for a tasty twist.
What about the strength of the brew?
Tea should always be brewed to its optimum strength, so to extract the full complexity and character, generally, that’s freshly boiled water steeping 3-5 minutes for black tea (3 for smaller grade leaf and up to 5 for larger leaves) or 80C for 2-3 minutes for green tea. The strength of the tea itself has more of an impact on its mouth-feel and its weight and structure because the longer you steep, the more tannin-like structure comes through … which for many kinds of cheese is ideal. Don’t overdo it, a little astringency is good but bitterness ruins it.
JON'S PERFECT PAIRINGS
Mid-elevation black tea like our Meda Watte matches a traditional stilton beautifully. The tea is full-bodied yet elegant and velvety on the palate, in the style of a syrah. It’s one of the few teas that can cope with salty blue cheeses, becoming like licorice together. The fondant structure of the cheese melts wonderfully with the tea. For creamier blue cheeses, a large-leaf lapsang souchong is great because it’s very soft in terms of tannins but the gentle smokiness is intoxicating with the flavour of the cheese.
Camembert and Brie
A high elevation tea like our Nuwara Eliya Pekoe from Sri Lanka or an Indian darjeeling can produce a lovely rich experience with a nice soft brie. Likewise our Ceylon Young Hyson Green Tea with its brisk herbal notes can really enhance a less-creamy brie. Camembert pairs well with the fruity muscatel notes in second flush darjeeling or the dried fruit character in our low-grown but large leaf Galle OP1 (Orange Pekoe) black tea.
Cheese like cheddar and parmesan are less fatty but often contain fruity and nutty notes so pairings based on flavour work nicely. Try a Chinese Keemun with cheddar, known for a Burgundy quality and slightly-fruity-with-softer-tannin structure, or a sweet and floral oolong like Tie Guan Yin.
A buttery cheese like smoked havarti goes great with our Single Estate Oolong which is light with toasted nutty notes. Salty cheesesFeta is a tough one because it can be both salty and a little sharp and tangy. The best way would be to avoid a more bitter style of tea and go for something with soft umami character like Japanese sencha or a hojicha. I wouldn’t usually suggest flavoured teas but Earl Grey, with its delicate bergamot orange flavour, is worth a try. It can be a fairly strong tea so fully brew it, but dilute afterwards for a lighter cup to match.
Our Ceylon Silver Tips is a super-premium tea and too delicate and subtle to pair with most cheeses. However, it can pair beautifully with a fresh ricotta — try drizzling just a little honey over the ricotta too. Likewise, try white tea with fresh mozzarella.
Smelly or washed-rind cheeses
A classic English Breakfast tea, with its rounded balance between earthy fresh and coppery warm, will stand up to most pungent washed-rind cheeses.
The vegetal character and rounded umami sweetness of Japanese Sencha balance the tangy notes in a younger style goat’s cheese. Alternatively, try a chamomile herbal infusion.
Many of the premium loose leaf teas suggested by Dilmah can be found online at their local online store.