Sweet, sticky and addictive, the right honey with the right cheese makes for a sensual experience. A perfect honey pairing exists whether a cheese has a salty, nutty, buttery, earthy or even grassy flavor profile. The thousands of variations of honey across the world can sometimes make choosing the right one overwhelming. According to honey sommelier Marina Marchese's article in the current issue of Culture: The Word on Cheese, the plants visited by the bees determine the flavor profiles of the honey. She goes on to say, "Two beehives placed in the very same field of alfalfa could each yield honey that is completely different from the other in color, flavor, texture and aroma." Marchesa also points out the important role played by wind and rain in honey harvesting: "Mother Nature has the last word." To help ease the confusion of all the choices when it comes to artisanal honey, let's make like a bee and get busy with a few of my favorite honey and cheese pairings.
Soft cheeses like fluffy ricotta, fresh goat cheese and triple-cream bloomy rinds taste delicious with honeycomb. The beeswax cells provide a waxy texture to contrast the spreadable cheeses, and the virgin honey has a gentle flavor. A perfect example of such a pairing is the French cow's milk cheese, Delice de Bourgogne. Its whipped cream-like paste has a sour cream tang and slightly salty finish perfect for comb honey. If you prefer a liquid honey, drizzle a citrusy orange blossom flavor over these styles to slightly cut the milky thickness and long finish on your tongue. This will elevate the flavor of the cheese and prepare your palate for the next bite. Keep the drizzle light so the flavors of the cheese enhance without disappearing completely.
The aged, nutty and salty cheeses also contrast the sweet sticky stuff in melodious harmony. The juxtaposition of the two will buzz your taste buds. My favorite duo is a rustic piece of sheep's milk cheese from England called Berkswell with a dark buckwheat honey. The earthy hay smell and rich molasses flavor of the honey play nicely with the roasted nut, clover and whiskey flavors of this aged cheese. Beekeepers often plant buckwheat flowers because the blossoms have a rich, concentrated nectar and sometimes bloom into the fall. Buckwheat honey is also high in antioxidants and minerals, providing a healthy reason to seek out this dark treat. For another healthy choice, forgo crackers and bread with this combination — you simply do not need a third wheel when it comes to this pair.
Subtle mild honeys that originate from alfalfa nectar help reduce the sharp spiciness of some peppery blue cheeses. Alfalfa honey has a light golden hue and can stand its ground alongside a pungent cheese without making your teeth stick. Even timid palates can experiment with blues dotted with this sweet honey. Rogue River's Caveman Blue made with organic cow's milk has a rich, buttermilk paste with gritty age crystals that burst pleasantly in combination with soft spun honey (sometimes referred to as "creamed" or "whipped honey"). Alfalfa-spun honey should be served at room temperature so it spreads like butter. Fine crystals make spun honey smooth and fluffy.
The life of a bee is laborious, but the result is pure bliss. Taste the rewards of the hard working bees and add honeycomb to your cheese boards.
Local sources for premium honey
Tropical Blossom, tropicalbeehoney.com
Hi Hat Ranch, farmtoschool.org
Artisan sources for honey, as recommended in Culture: The Word on Cheese
Wisconsin Natural Acres Honey, wnacres.com
Honey Ridge Farms, honeyridgefarms.com
Red Bee Artisan Honey, redbee.com
Savannah Bee, savannahbee.com
Kira Jefferson is the resident "cheese guru" at SideBern's in South Tampa.