Many cheese lovers seem to be unaware that combining savory cheese with sweet fruit (and fruit preserves like jams, jellies, confits, and marmalades) goes all the way back to Middle Ages. In fact, there was a time when cheese was considered, if not a dessert, at least a “meal ender,” something to chase away the rich and heavy flavors from the dinner and cleanse the palate before dessert.
Pairing cheese with fruits (and fruit preserves, first in winter and then year-round) has a long history all across Europe, but it’s especially entrenched in Italy and France. I suppose it’s no surprise that these are the countries where the sweet-and-savory combination put down the strongest roots, if for very different reasons. They are both, after all, renowned for bold flavors, bold colors, and the ways to bring out the best qualities in even the simplest of ingredients.
And that is why, in essence, the cheese and jam combo has remained a staple of European dinner tables and party platters: these two ingredients complement each other, bringing out the subtler undertones, adding complexity to the flavor profiles, and balancing the sharper qualities, which may be less appealing to less refined palates.
The trick is all about finding the right ingredients to mesh.
What’s the Key to Finding a Perfect Cheese and Jam Pairing?
Not all flavor combinations are made equal, and the principle is no different when it comes to cheese and jam. Of course, the foundation is solid from the get-go: something sweet paired with something savory, you’d have to put in the effort to ruin something like that (there’s a reason why honey is the go-to option for the sweet element of charcuterie boards).
But there are better combinations, where both ingredients in the pairing work to bring out the best in each other, and there are worse ones, where one element overpowers the other, turning it into an accompaniment instead of an equal partnership.
That said, unless your pantry is fully stacked with ten different types of jam and the refrigerator sporting a dozen different types of cheese to accompany each at all times, you’re going to need a wiggle room. There are several principles of pairing jam and cheese that supposedly helps with finding the correct balance between the two flavors:
- The sharper the cheese, the sweeter the jam should be. The more mature and aged the cheese, the more robust its flavor is going to be, likely nuttier, richer, and savory. These cheese varieties will work the best with sweet jams that don’t have a lot of complexity going for it. Stick to sweeter fruits like figs, peaches, and apricots, and skip tangy and spicy fruit preserves like citrus marmalades, quince jelly, and zesty berry jams.
- Mellow, creamy, and sweet cheese works best with more complex flavors. Zesty and tart flavors from these jams (citrus, berry, quince, cherry, rhubarb) add depth and complexity to the cheese flavor without overwhelming it completely. These cheese go well with more unique savory jams like onion, tomato, and pepper, as well.
- The ratio matters! It doesn’t matter how perfect a flavor combo you’ve come up with; if you put too much or too little jam on your slice of cheese, it will either be unable to add anything to the cheese flavor or completely overwhelm it. Stick to a small dollop per slice, neither drenching the cheese nor acting like the jam is merely a seasoning instead of a full-time partner in this combo.
Here are a few suggestions on how to pair different types of cheese with different types of jam to get what we, here at Yummy Bazaar, consider the most optimal flavor combinations that accentuate the flavor highlights in both components without overpowering either.
Fig Jam and Sharp Blue Cheese, Grana Cheese, or Manchego Viejo
Figs are one of the most versatile fruits when it comes to cheese. They go well with most of them, aside from the very mild and mellow. But classic sweet fig jam with a bit of spice to it works best with sharp blue cheese (Roquefort, Cabrales, Gorgonzola Piccante) and mature hard cheese like Parmigiano Reggiano or Manchego Viejo.
Apricot Jam and Grana Cheese or Mild Blue Cheese
Apricot jam is a classic example of sweet and ripe flavors working great with complex and robust flavors. Parmigiano Reggiano, Pecorino Romano, and Grana Padano are all excellent options to pair with it. Blue cheese is another suitable pairing, but milder varieties like Gorgonzola Dolce, Danablu, or Blue Stilton would work best.
Quince Jam (or Jelly) and Manchego, Pecorino, or Halloumi
Tart quince jam (or jelly) works excellent with milder cheese made from sheep milk, accentuating its earthy and grassy undertones. Manchego Fresco and Semicurado (aged less than four months), Pecorino Saldo, and mellow but distinct halloumi are all great options. In the absence of them, other cheese with a similar flavor profile, like chevre or feta, can work as well.
Apple Jam and Gruyere, Asiago, or Fontina
A good apple jam (or jelly) is a masterclass in flavor balance. While it has a bit of a “goody-two-shoes” reputation and is considered a bit bland, when prepared with proper apples and spices, it has a robust and layered flavor that, on the one hand, isn’t too complex to be a problem to pair, on the other hand, needs a bit of thought to bring out its best qualities.
Gourmet apple jam is supposed to be sweet but with a noticeable tarn underline that works best with cheese that bridge the gap between mellow and sharp. Gruyere, Asiago (d’Allevo or Mezzano), or Fontina’s nutty and savory flavors with strong sweet undertones work great with that kind of apple jam.
Cranberry Jam and Brie, Camembert, or Chevre
Baked Brie and Camembert with cranberries is a classic at this point - and for a good reason! The tartness of cranberry jam goes best with mellow but robust and creamy flavors, and these French soft cheese varieties are the best examples. Chevre, the soft and young goat cheese, is another excellent option.
Cherry Jam and Grana Cheese, Gruyere, Asiago (Vecchio or Stravecchio), or Manchego Viejo
Cherry jam is another tricky option: while it’s tangy and, according to the classic formula, should be paired with mellow cheese, most cheese experts prefer pairing it with robust, sharp cheese like Parmigiano Reggiano, Pecorino Romano, and other hard, aged cheese. We’d say it’s more of a “jack of all trades” that can be used either way, but if you’re a fan of tangy flavors and aren’t really into sweeter jams, cherry is the exact balance of sweet-and-tangy to keep on hand.
Tomato Jam and Mozzarella, Scamorza Bianca, or Provolone
Tomato jam is sweet but a touch sour (think sun-dried tomatoes if you’ve yet to try it) and pairs best with creamy, milky, mild cheese varieties. Mozzarella, Strachiattella, and Scamorza Bianca will all work great with a dollop of tomato jam on a slice. If you’re a fan of bolder flavors, try it with Provolone Dolce (young Provolone, aged less than three months), a cheese reminiscent of Mozzarella but richer and butterier.
Plum Jam and Mild Blue Cheese, Smoked Scamorza, or Smoked Gouda
Sweet with a slight tartness that only adds to the flavor depth, plum jam is an excellent pairing for milder blue cheese varieties like Gorgonzola Dolce and Danablu, as well as smoked cheese, particularly smoked Scamorza and Gouda, highlighting the smokiness rather than overpowering it.
Citrus Marmalade (Orange, Tangerine, Lemon) and Gouda, Taleggio, or Emmental
Citrus marmalade can be somewhat more challenging to pair. You need a cheese that’s not too mellow and won’t get overpowered by the zest and tang from the citrus, but also isn’t too sharp or salty because it will just amplify the bite from the zest instead of accentuating the sweeter tones, which is the cheese’s job in this pairing. Classic rich and buttery, but not overly sharp, Gouda, Taleggio, or Emmental all work for this combo.
Blueberry Jam and Manchego (Semicurado or Curado), Stilton, or Parmigiano Reggiano
Blueberry jam is a veritable chameleon. It’s sweet but slightly tangy, has a great well-balanced flavor profile, and goes well with most moderately aged to old cheese. The best are the ones with a slight bite but not overt sharpness. Manchego aged around 4-6 months or classic Stilton are the most optimal options, but put a dollop on something sharper like Parmigiano Reggiano, and it’ll still work fine.
Strawberry Jam and Cheddar, Gouda, or Emmental
This pairing is all about classic flavors. Strawberry is as classic as jam gets, and Cheddar, Gouda, and Emmental are as close to “classic” cheese flavor as it gets. Strawberry tends to be on the sweeter side, so I’d advise avoiding milder cheese varieties, but if you want to go a bit bolder, try it with Moliterno, Manchego, or Gruyere.
Pepper Jam and Ricotta, Provolone, Mozzarella, or Cream Cheese
Pepper jam is tricky in that you need something to douse the spiciness with. So the nigh-universal formula of “balance sweetness with robustness” doesn’t really work since the sweetness is playing second fiddle to spiciness in this case. The “go with mellow when it’s zesty and tangy” formula has a higher chance of working, but there’s a chance that the spice will “swallow” more delicate flavors like brie or Camembert will get “swallowed up.” The ideal solution, in this case, would be mild and creamy cheese like ricotta, Mozzarella, or classic cream cheese, with Provolone or Scamorza Bianca as options with flavors a tiny bit stronger.
Peach Jam and Blue Cheese, Sharp Cheddar, or Moliterno
Peach jam is another highly sweet option that goes well with sharp, aged cheese. Stronger blue cheese like Roquefort or Gorgonzola is an ideal pairing for this one, but if blue cheese just isn’t for you, look for savory options with a well-pronounced nuttiness like Cheddar or Moliterno.
Currant Jam and Blue Cheese with Spicy Kick (Black), Soft Cheese (Red), Feta and Chevre (Both)
Currant jam has a slightly acidic undertone, striking an outstanding balance between sweet and tangy and pairing well with soft, somewhat earthy cheese like Feta and Chevre. That said, black and red are not entirely identical, with red being more tart and black being more woodsy. This woodsy undertone makes the latter an excellent pair to blue cheese with a bit of spicy kick (like Cabrales), while the tartness in red goes great with a soft cheese like Brie or Stracciatella.
Blackberry Jam and Camembert, Chevre, Taleggio, or Mild Blue Cheese
Blackberry jam is sweet but tangy, with a bit of a bite. It’s the classic option of a jam that goes best with milder, softer cheese like Camembert or Taleggio or milder, sweeter moldy cheese like Blue Stilton.
Bonus: Chestnut Jam and Grana Cheese, Ricotta, or Any Aged Cheese (Yes, Really)
One would argue it’s not technically a fruit jam, but it’s called a jam, so we include it on our list! Chestnut jam is rich and nutty and is often paired with a type of Grana cheese (Parmesan, Pecorino, Grana Padano), but it can go well with any aged and robust cheese (ex. Manchego, Cheddar, Asiago, etc.). Or, if you prefer mild cheese, another option is to have it slathered on toast with ricotta.
Anything Else to Remember While Assembling the Cheese Board?
In the end, everyone’s palates are different. What may be considered the best due to conventional beliefs of certain flavor notes accentuating others doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily enjoy them all. Maybe you’re the type of person who prefers spicy pepper jam with sharper cheese like Cheddar or Gorgonzola or likes sweeter preserves like fig and peach with smoked cheese. There’s always a space to experiment. Even if you fail to find the right pairings in the beginning, you may yet discover something exceptional as long as you continue trying different combinations.
Cheese and fruit preserves by themselves are already a great flavor combination but don’t let that limit you. While some epicures do believe that combining multiple ingredients may result in either cheese or fruit flavor getting lost, there’s a reason why pairing cheese with different kinds of nuts, cured meats, savory dips, olives, vegetables, etc., is a thing. Cheese, any cheese, is already a versatile ingredient by itself; it just needs a bit of tweaking to become the best version of itself. Who knows, maybe you’ll even like cheese you didn’t before if you find the suitable meats, nuts, and jams to pair it with.
There’s a reason, after all, why assembling a charcuterie board is a form of (culinary) art.