Monday, December 18, 2017

Georgia, Jee, and Sara pair cheese with white tea

That intrepid trio of tea bloggers, Georgia, Jee, and Sara, got together last summer to pair three white teas with French cheese, with results fascinating to this flavor chemistry geek.

For the nitty-gritty details, take a look:

The three white teas they tried were a classic "Silver Needle" from the Silver Needle Tea Company; a "Nepal White" from Royal Tea New York, which had an unusual aroma for a white tea, namely muscatel; and "Midnight White" from In Pursuit of Tea—I could not find this tea on the company's website, so do not know exactly what it was. The cheeses came from The French Cheese Board in New York City.

You may remember that from a chemistry point of view (as I blogged on 7/1/16), most white teas are almost indistinguishable from lightly to moderately oxidized oolongs.* Both kinds of tea are rich and complex in flavor, and the chemicals in them tend to activate the cool and especially the warm receptors.

The cheese that paired well with all three white teas was a Beaufort.** This fascinating cheese originates in the Haute-Savoie of France, up in the Alps. I fell in love with this cheese as a young girl when I spent a summer there with my family. 

Map of France showing Haute-Savoie (red circle) in the Alps next to Switzerland and Italy.
Image from Wikipedia.

Milk for this cheese comes from two breeds of cow: 80% comes from Tarentaise and 20% from Abondance cows. These cows are well adapted to high altitudes, rough terrain, and Alpine vegetation. The vegetation they consume is critical for the flavor of the cheese: plant terpenes pass unchanged into the milk and then into the cheese.

Here's a Tarentaise cow in her Alpine pasture next to daisies from the Asteraceae family that provide her milk with flavorful terpenes.
Image from 

Tarentaise cows come from the Tarente valley in Haute-Savoie, where their cheese has been made for at least 2000 years—Pliny the Younger talks about it! Abondance cows were bred by medieval monks for their cheese in the same area. These monks cleared trees from the mountainsides to allow the growth of lush pasturages filled with forage plants rich in terpenes. 

This graph, from Chion et al***, shows the plant families present in Alpine hay forage (Meadow) and in Alpine Pasture. The Poaceae are poor in terpenes, while plants from the other families are rich in these chemicals.

These terpenes give Alpine cheeses a distinctive citrus/floral/piney quality not found in lowland cheeses. In fact cheeses made with milk from these same cows during the winter, when they are fed hay are (literally) a pale simulacrum of the summer cheese because hay, even hay from plants rich in these volatile terpenes when fresh, has lost them.****

Tarentaise cows (lighter brown) and Abondance cows (darker, with white faces) heading up the mountainside to the field milking station. As you can see, these cows are highly muscled thanks to mountain climbing, yet they are unusually docile.
You can also see the ridges in the pastures that cows make as they forage, not to mention the lack of trees. Also, a bunch of tourists!
Image from
There are two secrets to why white teas and Beaufort pair well. 

Here's the first:  while the terpenes in Alpine cheeses such as Beaufort may not be exactly the same as those in white teas, they activate the same array of cool and warm receptors. For example, both cheese and tea have limonene, which, as its name suggests, has a lemon flavor, and activates cool receptors. By contrast, the terpene β-ocimene is in Alpine cheeses but not (to the best of my knowledge) in white tea. It has a warm, sweetly floral aroma, that complements the aromas of a number of compounds in white teas.  

Here's the other secret: Beaufort has a very high fat content—by regulation at least 45%. How does this help the pairing? Fat turns off the hot receptor TRPV1, and allows chemicals that activate the warm and cool receptors to be appreciated. The flavor of white teas is characteristically described as "delicate." I think that perhaps the better word might be "faint"—in fact the trio had to increase the proportion of tea to brew water to bring out the teas' flavor. Turning off TRPV1 allows these faint flavors to come to the fore. As Sara notes: "[Beaufort] not only brought out the softness of the [Silver Needle] tea, but it brought out a bit of floral aroma as well." 

==>> By the way, am working on a sequel featuring white tea to my book "Three Basic Teas & How to Enjoy Them" (available at Amazon). In this sequel you will find out why white tea is more like oolong than, say, green tea, even though the processing steps for oolong and white tea are so very different. 

* Torri, L., Rinaldi, M. and Chiavaro, E. (2014), Electronic nose evaluation of volatile emission of Chinese teas: from leaves to infusions. Int J Food Sci Technol, 49: 1315–1323. doi:10.1111/ijfs.12429.

** You can find out all about Beaufort cheese on innumerable websites, but if you can read French or just want to look at mouthwatering photos, the best one is Beaufort's own

*** Andrea Revello Chion, Ernesto Tabacco, Daniele Giaccone, Pier Giorgio Peiretti, Giovanna Battelli, Giorgio Borreani, Variation of fatty acid and terpene profiles in mountain milk and “Toma piemontese” cheese as affected by diet composition in different seasons, In Food Chemistry, Volume 121, Issue 2, 2010, pp. 393-399, ISSN 0308-8146,

**** Here is another paper showing the effects of pasturage on Alpine cheese composition: de Noni, Ivano; Battelli, Giovanna. Terpenes and fatty acid profiles of milk fat and “Bitto” cheese as affected by transhumance of cows on different mountain pastures. Food Chemistry, 07/2008, Volume 109, Issue 2,  pp. 299-309. 


  1. Hi Virginia, such a great post! I'm learning so much!

    1. ...and thank you so much for your great posts, Jee! I love your blog, and am looking forward to meeting you someday. Am now in the Boston area. Do you ever come up this way?

  2. Wat een interessante post! Ik herinner me dat je op onze ontmoeting hierover sprak! "Fat turns off the hot receptor TRPV1, and allows chemicals that activate the warm and cool receptors to be appreciated". Dankjewel Virginia

    1. Ja! Witte thee zoals U het heeft gemaakt was een verrassing! Ik zou daarover spreken in een volgende post. Dankjewel Kristin!