Absinthe and cheese, who knew? Well apparently Ben Luzz from Gin Palace and Bar Ampere and Laura Lown from Milk the Cow had a fairly good idea. And from their impressive collective knowledge, grew the Absinthe and Cheese tasting.
Ben wasn’t always an Absinthe fan. Having always hated liquorice flavours and avoided Pastis, he at some point decided to get over all that and see what all the fuss was about. He was immediately captivated by the history and the nuances amongst the variety of absinthes.
A much maligned drink, there is a great deal of mythologising around its hallucinogenic properties and its ability to lead astray those who imbibe. Blamed for deaths, insanity, and the apparent demise of 19th century society, absinthe was banned for 100 years until 1988, and has only recently started to make a comeback. Certainly many of the more discerning bars in Melbourne have the absinthe ‘fountains’ doing more than just decorating bars and tables.
Absinthe originated in Switzerland in the 18thcentury and is made from wormwood and anise and can have an alcohol content that can range from 45-72%. The current consensus is that it was more likely to be the large quantities consumed of this highly potent drink rather than any particularly evil ingredient in it.
Ben was fairly scathing of the pyromaniacal flaming of the absinthe and relegated such circus tricks to bars that stock poor quality absinthe and don’t know what they’re doing. Just as good tequila doesn’t need a wedge of lemon and salt to get through the shot, good quality absinthe does not need to be flamed.
It is ok, however, to embark on the sugar dripping ritual to sweeten what is sometimes considered a slightly bitter taste. This involves the flat, perforated absinthe spoon, a cube of sugar and the very slow water-torture like drip from the absinthe fountain through said sugar cube to form a sugar syrup that produces a cloudy opalescent ‘louche’ effect in the absinthe as the essential oils from the liquor are released.
Laura is the Cheesemonger at Milk the Cow. From the UK and with 7 years in the cheese industry, Laura describes herself as a cheese nerd and really knows her stuff.
Tastings start with a milder cheese and absinthe combo and work through to punchier flavours.
1. La Clandestine from Switzerland matched with and Italian Occelli Testun di Barolo.
Firstly, the cheese. A reasonably full flavoured pasteurised cow and goat cheese from the Piedmont region. Coated with the pressed grapes used to make Barolo wine, the flavours of the cheese and grapes mingle together to create a flavour that is creamy, sweet, winey, buttery and sharp all at once. Originally, Italian cheesemakers avoided paying extra fees and taxes on their cheeses by hiding them in wine barrels when the tax collectors came to visit. Now it’s just a matter of taste.
La Clandestine is a clear absinthe from Switzerland. This version of the drink is based on a 1935 recipe by Swiss Distiller Charlotte Vaucher. At 53% alcohol by volume, this is a mild-ish absinthe. I like the anise flavour and while I was happy to add water, sugar wasn’t necessary. Fresh herbal flavours paired well with the Occelli cheese.
2. Francois Guy from France and Meredith Farm Chevre
Goat’s milk can be a delicate and hard to handle product. When treated well, it produces the most sublime cheese. As is the case with Meredith Farm Chevre. The Meredith Farm cheese makers have a background in animal welfare so their goats are well cared for. They only use the milk from their own stock, hand milking all their goats and making the cheese on the property. Their cheese is moist and citrusy with a juicy mouthfeel.
These elements matched well with the subtle and yet slightly more aniseedy French absinthe from Francois Guy. Francois Guy, whose father Armand founded the distillery, has been a passionate absinthe advocate, campaigning to dispel many of the lingering rumours about the drink. The Guy distillery produces its product in the traditional way, according to an ancient house recipe.
3. Butterfly Boston and Bleu des Causses
The Bleu des Causses cheese is the little-known cousin of Roquefort, King of the blue cheeses. Originally made in the Auvergne with a blend of cow and ewe milk, it is now made entirely with cow’s milk. The Bleu des Causses flavour was a little too close to that of the King and Roquefort producers put their foot down and asked that the ewe’s milk be omitted from the lesser cheese variety.
Bleu des Causses is aged for 3-6 months in the limestone caves of the Gorges du Tarn, producing the sharpest blue mould possible, and producing a big, bold, rich cheese with a salty finish.
Butterfly absinthe is a recreation of a classic pre-prohibition absinthe produced in Boston in the early 1900s. In its heyday, it formed the base of over 150 cocktails. American absinthe differs from its European relatives in its use of the herbs growing in the Midwest and New England. Its flavour profile is a fairly complex mix of mint, citrus zest, and other herbs as well as the obvious wormwood. A lovely contrast to the salty blue.
4. Green Fairy Superieur from the Czech Republic and Reypenaer VSOP from the Netherlands.
The Reypenaer is a Dutch Gouda that is taken through a variety of natural maturation stages. It is aged for two years in an 100 year old riverside warehouse. Over the course of the two years it loses 25% of its original weight though moisture loss. The crunchy crystals which develop are concentrated proteins which are only found in properly aged cheeses. A lot of the lactic acid is lost in the ageing process and the result is a sweet, intense and creamy flavour with butterscotch and caramel notes.
This cheese is so good, the Dutch don’t like to export it and it is very difficult to get hold of.
Czechoslovakian absinthes are generally made with less finesse. More herbal than the others, they pack a lot of botanical punch, which was perfect with the robust and striking Reypenaer.
Good quality absinthe paired with beautiful cheese was a lovely match, as was the pairing of our hosts. It’s a gift to listen to people who know what they are talking about it and love it. I am fairly certain my dreams were particularly vivid that night. If only I could remember.