Hebe Denis is a certified sommelier, FIU hospitality grad, and most recently one of two Miami cheese connoisseurs who passed the first-ever comprehensive (and very challenging) American Cheese Society exam. Now she is one of the very few certified cheese professionals in all of Miami.
The exam set out to raise the standards for cheese professionals and bring the industry to the forefront of the specialty market. But Denis is more than book smart -- she puts her knowledge to work every day as the specialty team leader for the South Beach Whole Foods. Over the course of her time there, she has noticed the interest in cheese and the industry as a whole on a steady rise in Miami.
"I liken the cheese industry to how wine was 30 years ago," Denis says. "Back then, you had either the extreme collectors who holed up bottles in their cellar, or table wine in a jug -- no in between." The same was true for cheese, she says, but people today, just as they did with wine, are growing increasingly adventuresome with their cheese choices.
Because she is a certified expert in cheese and beverages, we asked her to prepare her top five cheese pairings for us to share in honor of National Cheese Month, all of which can be found at the South Beach Whole Foods.
Hebe Denis's Top 5 Cheeses and Pairings
1. Garrotxa (pronounced gah-roach-ah)
This traditional rustic goat's-milk cheese is from Catalonia. It's firm, and the delicate taste is milky-sweet, hazelnutty, and herbaceous. It has a mild and pleasant goat's-milk flavor that lingers lightly in the finish, which makes it a perfect pairing for the subtle sweetness of membrillo paste.
Pair with: Montsant Can Blau is a Spanish red blend medium-bodied wine. Its light minerality and dark fruits and herbs make it a perfect complement.
An America handcrafted raw cow's-milk cheese made in the tradition of French Alpine cheeses but reflecting the terroir of Vermont dairy country. It's a dense and complex cheese with subtle combinations. The flavors range from roasted nuts, sweet butter, meaty, earthy, and grassy, with a smooth, creamy finish.
Pair with: A California Pinot Noir like Belle Gloss, which has light acidity with red-berry fruits that complement the cheese's earthy meatiness.
3. Red Hawk
This organic American soft-ripened and washed-rind cheese is made in the tradition of French triple crèmes from Cowgirl Creamery in California. This rich, unctuous cheese is very pungent and funky depending upon the ripeness. Open it up, let it breathe, and the rich, meaty mushroom flavors -- combined with a long, creamy finish -- make Red Hawk one of the most interesting cheeses you will ever experience.
Pair with: Enjoy this cheese on a crusty baguette with a beer like Dupont Saison or Ommegang Hennepin.
4. Rogue River Blue
American handcrafted blue cheese made by Rogue Creamery in Oregon. This artisanal cheese is made in the centuries-old tradition of wrapping cheese in brandy-soaked leaves. This creamy blue is a reflection of the Oregon terroir, with hints of pine, tart berries, and hazelnuts, with a rich, lingering finish. Enjoy this cheese for dessert.
Pair with: Caro Artisan Spanish chocolate (dark or milk) with a Ruby Port. Or savor it alone on 34 Degrees crispbread and Black Ops from Brooklyn Brewery, available at South Beach Whole Foods in November and December. There are 950 cases -- first come, first served.
5. Ossau Iraty (pronounced oh-sow)
This was the first cheese I ever had that aroused me in a way I never knew cheese could. It's a raw sheep's-milk cheese from the French Basque country. It is made using traditional methods in stone huts in the Pyrenees mountains during the spring and summer migrations to higher pastures. This cheese is perfectly balanced with hazelnuts and cashew flavors, sweet sheep's milk, and an olivey, oily finish. This is a very versatile cheese that pairs well with many different styles of wine and beers. It's a crowd pleaser and a great cheese to bring to a cheese party.
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Pair with: A mineraly unoaked white Burgundy, a rosé, or a Cremant de Bourgogne.
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