In the realm of food and beverage pairings, hard apple cider is the quiet stranger at the summer cookout. Beer is everybody's buddy, always up for a burger or something hot and saucy from the grill, while wine is cloistered in a corner, decked out in the bright hues of the season, waiting to cozy up to the salads and sides. Cider remains a cool mystery.
Spend a little time getting to know your cider and you'll find it full of personality: bubbly and effervescent, or dry and surprising. Pairing cider with cheese can be a tricky proposition. When you find the right match, though, it's a lot like that stranger at the cookout—a beautiful surprise.
Friends Heather and Steve joined my husband and me for an evening of intense cheese-and-cider tasting. We found some definite matches for cheeses, local and otherwise. We also found that sometimes the cheese must stand alone.
The most familiar cider on our table was the J.K.'s Scrumpy Hard Cider FarmHouse Organic, made at Almar Orchards in Flushing, Mich. ($6.99 at most outlets). This has been available in the area in better beer stores and grocery-store coolers for a while. Essentially, Scrumpy is what the lesser rhinocerous-and-rodent-labeled ciders aspire to be. It's straightforward, apple-juice sweet and easy to drink, but not cloying. Try this one with the Hillsborough Cheese Co.'s amazing Muenster ($29.99 per pound).
But first, forget what you think you know about Muenster. The rubbery stuff you've been slapping on your sandwich bears only a passing resemblance to Hillsborough's handmade version. Muenster's signature mild tang infuses the cheese, but its creamy texture recalls handmade mozzarella rather than pencil erasers. (My husband's fabulous tasting note on this: "It takes a long time to taste like cheese. But I like it.") The sweet flavor of Scrumpy offers a perfect partner.
Triangle cider fans are blessed by the increasing number of well-made, small-batch ciders from North Carolina and Virginia and by the tastes of adventurous distributors and merchants who bring us a range of European imports.
The most interesting, if not the most popular, cider at our party was Trabanco ($8.49 at The Raleigh Wine Shop, 126 Glenwood Ave., 803-5473, theraleighwineshop.com). The family behind Trabanco has been making its cider for commercial consumption since 1925, but this was my first encounter with it. The apples come from the Asturias region on Spain's northern coast. The assertive, acidic flavors of the Cosecha Propia are not to everyone's liking, but I find them bracing and tantalizing, a bit like a tough crossword puzzle. Steve likened the experience to drinking a good Scotch, also an acquired taste. The aroma recalls a fruit cellar in the summer, full of earth and ripe apple, while the taste goes from lemon to oak to mild smoke on the finish.
It paired best with a Dutch chevre by maker UnieKass, which I found at Earth Fare in Brier Creek ($12.99 per pound). It's a hard chevre with a mildly nutty flavor not found in fresh, soft goat cheese. The Trabanco needs a partner that will follow its lead, and this one falls in step gracefully.
Foggy Ridge Cider, based in the Blue Ridge Mountains in Dugspur, Va., occupies prime shelf space in some of the Triangle's best wine merchants' coolers and shelves. Several varieties are regularly available in the market. We tasted the First Fruit and the Serious Cider ($15.99 a piece at Wine Authorities, 2501 University Drive, Durham, 489-2884, wineauthorities.com). The First Fruit is sweeter, while the Serious Cider is drier and tangier. Both have clear, bright color like a pilsner and mild carbonation. Both pair well with the Dutch chevre and Kerrygold's Dubliner ($9.99 per pound), the cheddar-like import from Ireland found in grocery cheese bins all over.
McRitchie's, from a winery and ciderworks in Thurmond in North Carolina's Yadkin River Valley, makes a very respectable cider as well. The apples come from nearby Brushy Mountain in Wilkes County. Foundation, the underground Fayetteville Street bar in Raleigh, sells this, as do Weaver Street Market ($12.49) and The Raleigh Wine Shop ($14.99). It is clear and crisp like the Foggy Ridge, but its flavors are more intensely apple-y. Eat it with hard cheese like the Dutch chevre and cheddar.
Another European find was the Cidre Bouché Brut de Normandie at The Raleigh Wine Shop. This one was explosive, literally. I could have taken someone's eye out when I popped the cork, and the unfinished third of the bottle was still effervescent after a night in the fridge. Let the bubbles rest a bit before you dive in, meanwhile you can enjoy the nose, which is full of flowery perfume. The flavor is buoyed by its bubbles and slightly juicy. It goes well with Dubliner ($9.99 per pound).
Just about every cider we tasted, with the exception of the Trabanco, paired beautifully with a fenugreek-flecked gouda that our friends found at Whole Foods. Fenugreek is a seed most often used in curry spice blends. Here it was stirred into a well-made gouda, imparting strong notes of caramel and almond, making it perfect with apple ciders, especially the sweet Scrumpy. Taken together, it's like eating a caramel apple, without the need for hand wipes.
The Goat Lady Dairy Plain Fresh Chevre ($19.99 per pound) was similarly accommodating. It's the Platonic ideal of goat cheese, smooth and nutty with a creamy-crumbly texture and a crisp, nutty flavor. It can stand up to both the sweeter and dryer domestic ciders we tried.
Try as we might, we could not pair Hillsborough Cheese Co.'s superb Bloomin' Sweet Ash Goat Cheese with any cider on the table. It had loads of ripe flavor and an aroma so intense and pungent it drove my husband—an avowed stinky cheese-o-phobe—from the room. This one needs a strong hand, which I'm guessing only a red wine can provide. Some cheeses, like some strangers, remain unapproachable.
For more about cheese, see this week's Dish cover stories.