Today we feature two cheeses that are both quintessential representatives of their place of origin, Stilton from Colston Bassett Dairy in Nottinghamshire, England, and Beemester Classic Gouda, from the canal-lined pastures of the Beemster "polder" in northern Holland. They have as much terroir and complexity as any fine wine.
The farmland from which Beemster Gouda originates, locally known as a "polder" — a low-lying tract of land enclosed by embankments (barriers) known as dikes —is situated 20 feet below sea level. Rich in alluvial soil with the finest of Dutch pastures, it is world-renowned for its high-quality milk. This Beemster is the product of a dairy co-op manned by the local residents of the polder, who have learned the techniques over generations and perfected this recipe dating from 1901. Matured for 18 months, it is a hard cheese with a stunning amber color, slightly flaky texture and flavors of fresh-cut grass, butterscotch, and almonds. The Dutch regard Beemster as their "signature" cheese.
No cheese is more "British" than Stilton. Stilton is a trademark, and the cheese of this name can only be produced in the counties of Derbyshire, Leicestershire, and Nottingham. Colston Basset, one of the smallest Stilton dairies in Great Britain, was founded in 1913 and produces the most traditional-style cheese. The cheese-makers of Colston Basset hand-ladle the curd, preserving the structure, which results in a distinctly luscious, creamy texture when the cheese matures. This Nottingham Stilton is made with animal rennet, rather than vegetable, which produces a more complex, deeper, lingering flavor than other Stiltons. Relatively sharp and aggressive when young, Colston Basset Stilton matures to a rich, velvety tang with age. Slightly salty, nutty, and piquant, it is a great foil for sweeter tastes such as fig cake and quince paste. It claims its rightful place as the "King of English Cheeses."
With the Beemester Classic Gouda, the traditional match is a deep, earthy Bordeaux blend, which the British refer to as "claret." Claret became popular in England when Eleanor of Aquitaine divorced her French husband, Louis VI,I to marry Henry II of England, bringing with her Aquitaine's most famous export, Bordeaux wine, and ushering in the 100 Years War. You may wonder why the British refer to Bordeaux wines as clarets. Apparently, they adopted the French term for a lighter version of what we know as traditional Bordeaux, "Clairet." Pronounced "clare-ray," the British Anglicized the term to "claret." However, claret is also a reference to the color of the wine, which is the deep ruby known as claret red. In fact, an old English slang expression for giving someone a bloody nose is "tapping the claret," in which "claret" refers to blood. By the 19th century, claret had become the most fashionable beverage of the grand estates and manors of the English countryside, and remains so today. This American claret, from Stelzner ($19.99), is a blend made from Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and cabernet franc grapes, some from Napa's famous Stag's Leap district. It is the perfect match for the "big" flavors of the Dutch cheese. A big wine itself, Stelzner claret bursts with intense notes of dried Bing cherry, cinnamon, clove, and vanilla (from the oak), with a hint of the traditional "cedar" of a Bordeaux.
A less traditional but equally successful match is "Dark Lady of the Labyrinth" ($21.99) from Doloof estate in South Africa. Pinotage, which is the national red grape of South Africa, is one of the best kept secrets in the wine world, as it almost always works beautifully with hard cheeses, such as Gouda, cheddar, and Gruyé®re. It is often quite inexpensive, but the lower-priced versions can be inconsistent, often throwing an unpleasant taste of burnt rubber on the finish. Yet when paired with almost any hard cheese, it seems to come to life. "Dark Lady of the Labyrinth" is 100 percent Pinotage of very high quality. Black cherry, melted liquorice, and spicy cloves wrap around a core of dark chocolate and rich coffee. While a lesser Pinotage works well with a mild cheddar or Swiss, it takes a full-bodied Pinotage like "Dark Lady" to stand up to the intense flavors of a powerful cheese such as the Beemster Classic.
Stilton cheese and tawny port is one of the great traditional matches in the wine world, but I prefer Cossart-Gordon 15-year Madeira ($42.99). Founded in 1745, Cossart-Gordon is the oldest producer of Madeira. Its 15-year Bual (made from the Bual grape) is oak-aged in the traditional fashion of Madeira, in which casks of the wine are transferred over time from the warm top floors of the aging lodge to the cool ground floor, resulting in a wine of great richness and complexity. Its powerful, sweet taste of dried fig, toffee, and almonds, balanced by solid acidity, provides a satisfying contrast to the salty tang of the Colston Basset Stilton.
Once the weather turns and the first chill of autumn arrives, I turn to beautifully aged Madeira as one of the best of all wines for dessert. Served with a slice of Stilton and a handful of velvety Marcona almonds, it makes a simple, memorable end to a meal. It is also the best match for coffee and tea. But, it truly shines when paired with dark chocolate. I enjoy it most with a simple chocolate cré®me bréªlé®e, made from French Valrhona or Belgian Callebaut.
Kathleen Powers Erickson is a certified sommelier and wine educator, wine consultant, author, and the owner of Savour Wine and Cheese, 24 Washington St., Gloucester.