Noted cheese authority Max McCalman, author of two glorious full-color paeans to cheese, points out that when you get right down to it, "cheese is nothing but spoiled milk." More accurately, I suppose, cheese is milk that has spoiled in a controlled (and rather delicious) manner.
In the days before refrigeration, cheesemaking allowed people to preserve the milk from their animals -- cows, sheep, goats -- for later consumption. Once they also learned to preserve their grapes through fermentation, our early ancestors had the start of the world's first summer cheese plate and wine-and-cheese pairing. And since that day, wine and cheese have been keeping each other company.
At Saunders Cheese Market in downtown Spokane, manager Oona Timmons and owner Kim Morin aim to introduce customers to some of the world's finest artisanal cheeses -- that is, cheese made the old-fashioned way, often from raw, unpasteurized milk, in small batches and not in a factory. They'll help customers assemble a series of cheeses for a cheese plate or to match cheese with a particular wine. They've teamed up with Chef Jeremiah Timmons (yes, Oona's husband) of Ambrosia for cooking classes and with John Allen of Vino to offer classes in wine-and-cheese pairings.
"There are certain things that you know will work well together, like a Semillon and goat cheese -- it just goes well together," Oona Timmons says. "Or a dessert wine with bleu cheese, that salty-sweet combination. We just trust some of those pairings that have always worked well."
For the classes, Allen provides a selection of five or six wines -- in classic wine-tasting fashion, starting with a sparkling wine, then moving through whites, perhaps a ros & eacute;, to reds and then to a dessert wine. Timmons and Morin then select a cheese to pair with each wine.
"One [combination] that you know is going to work is a port and a stilton," she says. "Or a sauterne and a Roquefort -- they're both French, they have qualities that combine well together, so you can appreciate the flavors. Both of those wines are heavier and sweeter, and the cheese is salty and robust ... and kind of pungent."
The reason why these classic pairings work well, Timmons says, is because the wines and cheeses complement each other rather than contrasting or, worse, competing. "Another pairing that comes to mind [is] sauvignon blanc and goat cheese," she says. "With sauvignon blanc, you get those flavors of grapefruit, and goat cheese has that citrus in the finish."
For a cheese to be considered a "summertime" cheese, Timmons says, it must taste light and refreshing. To set up a flight of warm-weather wines and cheeses, Timmons suggests, "If it were me, and I was sitting on my patio, it'd be hot," she says, "so I would want to do three really refreshing wines. I might not even do a red -- I'd probably do a sparkler, a white -- a crisp white -- and a ros & eacute;. And for cheese, I would definitely do the Humboldt Fog [a soft, surface-ripened goat cheese from California]. Hands down, it's such a popular cheese, people are really familiar with it, and it's a well-loved cheese ... I would also probably try to do something with a fresh water-buffalo mozzarella from Italy."
The principles of a successful cheese flight, Timmons explains, are the same as for selecting wines for wine-tasting: Move from lighter and simpler flavors to something that's heavier and more complex.
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & A & lt;/span & fter all the conversation, I put the theories to the test. I have a bottle of Waterbrook Ros & eacute; of Sangiovese at home, I tell Timmons -- what does she recommend?
"Sangiovese, that's the grape in chianti -- it's such a good food wine, so I would probably do a cheese that's a little more full-bodied," she says, turning to the cheese counter. "A piave would be good, or this pecorina fresca. Or the Abbaye de Belloc -- it's a raw sheep's milk cheese from France, made in an abbey by monks. It's a little pricey, but it's made with love -- a love of the Lord. I think that would go well with the ros & eacute;: It's a little tangy, with the raw milk, and then a nice, long and kind of a sweet finish."
And she's right -- the pairing works well. The wine and the cheese are wonderful separately, but together they add up to more than the sum of their parts.
The Abbaye de Belloc tops $40 per pound -- I don't know how those monks feel about chastity, but poverty is clearly not one of their cardinal virtues -- so it will remain a once-in-a-while special treat. But my palate has been opened to a flavor that's new to me but as old as the art of cheesemaking.
And I'll never again use the term "cheesy" to refer to something cheap.
For information about wine-and-cheese classes at Saunders Cheese Market, 210 S. Washington St., visit www.saunderscheesemarket.com or call 455-9400.