Illustration: Tom Jellett
As a sommelier, I am often faced with the question: "What comes first - the wine or the cheese?"
For me, the wine should be chosen first as a general rule because, by the time the cheese is served, the wine is already flowing. Having said that, I do have an Australian friend who, when hosting, insists on serving the cheese - with wine, of course - before dinner. So, to each their own, I say: I'm always happy to eat cheese, whenever someone chooses to serve it to me.
One of my most exciting (and delicious) recent encounters in Hong Kong was with a French affineur of great repute: Patrice Marchand, of the cheese-making family Les Freres Marchand. An affineur, according to Marchand, is someone who specialises in storing, maturing and ripening cheeses, and who can transform them into something magical. These connoisseurs provide a link between cheesemakers - with whom they work very closely - and their customers. Cheese is a living product and, in France, it's not just bought in supermarkets: real cheese-lovers go to an affineur.
Marchand and his two brothers are the sixth generation of Marchands to run the family business. That means they're the keepers of a grand tradition and, as a travelling affineur, Marchand has lately been sharing his knowledge with cheese lovers beyond France; hence his visit to Hong Kong.
Marchand says that at any time, his cellars contain "at least 450 different cheeses - which can be about 10 to 15 tonnes in total". For each season, there is a cheese, he tells me. "Spring is best for comte, because it is at its sweetest then. Summer is for chevre - the goats have lots of grass and their milk is very flavourful, especially if they are grazing in the Alps. Autumn is a good time for almost all cheese and we have many in our cellar coming into perfect ripeness. And winter? That is the season for Mont D'Or."
In Hong Kong, his partner for the purpose of wine and cheese pairing was none other than Baron Benjamin de Rothschild, of the illustrious banking and winemaking family and the son of Baron Edmond, who died in 1997. Wines produced by his branch of the family include Chateau Clarke (Listrac), Chateau Malmaison (Moulis-en-Medoc) and Chateau des Laurets (Puisseguin-St Emilion). These are not in the same price range as other Rothschild wines such as Chateau Lafite Rothschild or Mouton Rothschild but they are excellent value, as they are made with the same exacting standards that have made Lafite and Mouton bywords for fine wine.
Each generation of the Rothschild family has stewarded the estates on which their wines are grown. Taking things a step further, however, Baron Edmond bought Domaine des Trente Arpents, near Paris, and turned it into a sustainable farm that produces the only farm-made Brie de Meaux AOC (appellation d'origine controlee). It also produces Coloumiers (a nutty cheese), Brillat-Savarin (very creamy) and Merle rouge - an unusual, washed-rind cheese that is rinsed with the skins of red wine grapes. It's firm, with a bit of bite, and delicious with a glass of Chateau Clarke. The milk that goes into the cheese comes from animals reared on the farm.
Tasting the cheese of Domaine des Trente Arpents and wine from Rothschild's estates with Marchand, I could not help but marvel at the marriage of these two French passions and how they link a sixth-generation affineur and a seventh-generation winemaker. Does it matter whether the cheese or the wine comes first?