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Happy Hour: An Oral Pendulum

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By Rachael Lucas

Lately, indulging in happy hour has become a frequent occurrence.  As my happy hours tend to involve tastings, they have afforded me an opportunity to fine tune my palate and learn some stuff.    

On a recent afternoon, I stumbled into oral fireworks that had me riding a flavor high for a week.  I got the brilliant idea to empty out my crisper drawer full of fromage and couple it all with a sizable selection of spirits.  One can speculate how a certain flavor marriage will be, but we never know for certain unless we taste the foodstuffs together.  What I experienced in this cheese and spirits trial were extreme highs and wretched lows. 

The cheese line-up went as follows:

Stepladder Creamery’s Big Sur, a pudgy bloomy-rinded, triple crème cow and goat’s milk cheese from California.  I love cow and goat mixed milk cheese because there tends to be a richness from the cow’s milk plus a signature goaty tang.

Cherry Valley Dairy’s Meadow Bloom, an award-winning cow’s milk bloomy from Duvall, WA.  It tastes like pastoral butter with a slight fungal aspect from the rind.  Now is the best time of year to have this cheese, though into the fall, the milk has even more fat, so its unction grows with the seasons.

Jean Faup’s L’Ariégeois Noir, a black wax-rinded cow’s milk tomme from the Pyrenees in France.  This is one of those cheeses that I describe as cheesy.  It tastes like one might think of when she thinks of cheese in general. It is approachable, creamy, a tad buttery, with an unmistakable note of Kraft Singularity.

Pascal Bellevaire’s 6-month-aged Mimolette from France.  This younger version of the infamous natural-and-mite-rinded cow’s milk weirdo is nutty, buttered popcornish, and a bit long in structure.  I especially enjoy the cratered, more aged versions with deeper flavor development and firmer paste.

Black Sheep Creamery’s St. Helens, a Washingtonian ewe’s milk natural-rinded tomme.  This wheel is gritty and floral with a breath of lanolin.  One thing I love about Black Sheep’s artisan tommes is every wheel is a little different from the others.    

Herve Mons’ Fourme D’Ambert, a cow’s milk blue cheese hailing from the Auvergne region of France.  The soil in this region is volcanic, so there is a noticeable minerality in the cheese, along with a hint of cacao and grass, and a texture that sticks to the mouth like fudge.

Rogue Creamery’s Crater Lake Blue, an Oregonian cow’s milk blue that is savory and moreish.  The texture juxtaposition is both granular and creamy, which is something I adore in blue cheese.  The flavor?  In a word:  umami.

Since you always want to taste things from lightest/sweetest to boldest/most robust to palatally invasive, the spirits were drunk in this order:

Trader Vic’s White Chocolate Liqueur:  It is milky and tastes like the filling in a cherry cordial.

Edmond Briottet Crème de Cassis de Dijon (black currant liqueur): This liqueur is viscous, tart and sweet, saliva-inducing, and wow-worthy. 

Aperol, a bitter aperitif made of rhubarb, gentian, and other ingredients (some are secret):  It is a little bitter and medicinal, but delicious nonetheless, especially in cocktails.  It is difficult to pinpoint flavors in this concoction.

Drambuie, made with Isle of Skye Scotch, heather honey, and herbs and spices:  This is a lip smacking, fire through the nose, herbaceous elixir.

Fernet-Branca, a digestif:  If you have an affinity for anise/black licorice, then you have found your after-dinner drink. 

Some of the couplings were blatantly aversive.  I pounded more than a liter of water during this happy hour, merely because of the insult done to my palate via a handful of wretched mouthfuls.  Crème de Cassis was not a friend of Crater Lake Blues.  Together they conjured nostril-flairing biliousness.  The bitters in Aperol conflicted with the cultures (namely penicillium candidum) in the rinds of the soft ripened cheeses—Big Sur and Meadow Bloom; my trap was flooded in cough syrup and aspirin.  The Fernet-Branca was a rascal in this tasting.  There were marriages when I gagged because the flavor profiles were so irreconcilable. This held especially true with the blue cheeses. 

Luckily, there were outstanding interminglings, and they far outweighed the oral anguish I endured.  The white chocolate liqueur combined with Fourme D’Ambert tasted like salted pralines.  It created an enjoyable salivary response as salt ultimately came to the forefront with pecan in the exhale.  Crème de Cassis (which paired well with every cheese but Crater Lake Blue, by the way) with St. Helens elicited an organoleptic evolution as the playful textures and flavors melded into something entirely new.  My lips were nectared, and my tongue was drenched in tart and tangy notes of blood-red, Washington cherries.  Drambuie was excellent with all the cheeses.  Most notably, I enjoyed the warmth that was brought forth from the Scotch and the way it carried fromage aromas in its clasp.      

One cheese that was not significant in the pairings was L’Ariégeois—the cheese that tastes like cheese.  Since it caused no offense or any aprobational aspect to note, I decided L’Ariégeois is best as an accompaniment.  Sometimes you want to showcase the drink, and this is an excellent cheese to serve in that way.  Cheese does not always need to be a major player.  Fromage maintains the humility to take on a supporting role if need be.

While this tasting pendulum swung in extreme directions, I deem it important to remind folks that tastings should be both enjoyable and educational.  I chose the Fernet-Branca knowing it was going to tax my palate and that my retronasal passage would inevitably suffer a little.  Whether you work in the food profession, are a cheese specialist, or even a home entertainer, conducting tastings like this grand happy hour, is a necessity.  We do not want to get caught with our organoleptic pants down when it comes time to make a pairing recommendation or to put together a party platter with drink accompaniments.  This is the dirty work that we do to ensure that the people who trust us with their palates get the most pleasure out of their mouthful as possible.

If you have questions about pairing ideas, cheese in general, or just need someone off whom you can bounce tasting ideas, please do not hesitate to email me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Rachael Lucas with cheese wheels MUG

Editor’s note:   Rachael Lucas is an American Cheese Society Certified Cheese Professional (CCP).  She also has the distinction of being one of forty-six people in the country with the ACS C.C.S.E. (Certified Cheese Sensory Evaluator) accreditation.  You can most often find her cheesemongering in the Seattle area.  When she's not working with cheese, she's eating it, talking about it, reading about it, writing about it, and dreaming about it.  She can be reached with inquiries about fromage and food excitement in the Seattle area at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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