An alternative way Food pairings to avoid allergens

For millions of people, restaurants are a minefield. Th […]

For millions of people, restaurants are a minefield. The prospect of dining out, terrifying. Antihistamine tablets tumble out of pockets. Epipens cause embarrassing bulges in zipped jackets. These restaurant patrons interrogate waiting staff. Packaging is fetched from the kitchen with chefs indignantly in tow. In hushed tones, the diners try to explain so as not to cause a scene. They are the food allergic! By ‘they’. I mean ‘we’.

Super-vigilance doesn’t end in restaurants. It strikes in grocery stores. We read the wrappers of any foods pre-made, tinned, boxed, foiled or cellophaned. We crawl so slowly up grocery store aisles, we can cause six-cart pile ups. By ‘we’ I mean ‘I’. Personally, a sudden onset of allergies to the sulfites (sulphites) in wine slammed the brake on any serious relationship I had with that beverage. Years later, when I first nosed my way into whisky, the prospect of sherry cask finish gave me pause for thought. In the United States, any food or drink containing more than 10 parts per million must list sulfites on the label. The European Union and the United Kingdom have similar regulations. So I checked the labels. Finding no warnings on sherry-finished whisky bottles gave me the courage to swallow a pre-emptive, alcohol compatible anti-histamine and wade in.

I haven’t had any problems but I take other precautions too complicated to discuss here.

It is estimated that about 10 per cent of the population may be allergic to sulfites, with an increased propensity in people with asthma. A similar percentage of the population report allergies to penicillin, and that brings us to cheese. Penicillium candidum or camemberti, found in brie and many soft cheeses, and Penicillium roqueforti and glaucum, found in blue cheeses, are not the same strain as the medication form: Penicillium chrysogenum. The antibiotic is made with an extract, not the whole form as used in cheese. Many people who are allergic to the medication are able to consume these cheeses without difficulty. But not everyone! Some people will indeed react to these cheeses with symptoms ranging from mild rashes or hives to life-threatening anaphylaxis.

In my last article, I presented a simple way to entertain with slice and serve foods, mainly whisky, chocolate and cheese. I wrote about food and whisky pairing expert Martine Nouet’s concept of a bridge; a food that can help two others interconnect flavour-wise. Whole grain or unbleached sourdough breads can often serve that function. Bread or no bread, for me chocolate is always the answer. If that seems a bridge too far, rest assured, dark chocolate is not just for dessert.

Since the article in which I paired a couple of peated whiskies with chocolate and blue cheeses, I’ve been thinking about our allergic friends. How often do food writers suggest ingredients without providing alternatives for well known allergens? I can’t offer an alternative for chocolate. Trust me, there is none. But with respect to cheese, I decided to search out substitutions for the blues, tasting my way through various groups of non-blues made in Britain, France, Denmark, Holland and Switzerland, only to end up in Italy. All roads lead to Rome? Well, not that far south. The two Italian cheeses I found to be most compatible are from the north. They are both unpasteurised varieties. One is semi-soft, the other hard, and they are well-aged. I can’t stress the aged aspect strongly enough.

Here are the ones to buy.

1. Fontina (PDO) Valle d’Aosta (Val d’Aosta in the USA) is semi-soft, made from the raw milk of grass-fed cows in the Piedmont region. The cheese should be aged six to nine months, minimally. The texture is almost gummy. Of the two cheeses, this melts more easily, if you wish to serve it on bread or toast. Easy does it, though. Even in my old microwave, 10 seconds suffices.

2. Asiago (PDO) (d’Allevo, Vecchio or Stravecchio) is a hard cheese that originates in the Veneto or Trentino regions, made from the raw cows milk grazed on a high alpine plateau. Look for one that is aged more than 10 months (vecchio) or 15 months (stravecchio). The texture is somewhat crumbly. It is best cut into cubes when you use it.

PDO means the name has origin-designated protection similar to use of the terms Scotch or Bourbon. Make sure to get to know and buy from reliable and knowledgeable cheese mongers who sell the highest quality imported cheeses. Yes, it will cost more, but it’s worth it. In New York, the cheesemongers at Zabar’s or Murray’s will let you taste before you buy. To be sure the cheeses are the real deal and not cheap knock-offs, look for the consortium stamps on the outside of the cheese wheels, or ask the seller to check. Don’t settle for the younger, pasteurised-type Fontina or Asiago; they are too mild to hold their own when matched to a peated whisky. Our favourites from Islay will slay them.

Here are some tasting notes for the cheeses.

1. Fontina
Nose: earthy, mushroom, smoke
Palate: cream, sometimes fruity, truffle undernotes
Finish: cream of mushroom and
white pepper

2. Asiago
Nose: a toast note and savoury caramelised butter
Palate: sharp, tangy and slightly spicy
Finish: saline and tangy

So now let’s add whisky into the mix to start:

1. Lagavulin 16 Years Old and Fontina
The cheese amps the peat, and the whisky pops the mushroom note of the cheese. Add a baguette or sourdough bread to bridge the two. If you like peat, you’ll enjoy the direction of the duo.

2. Lagavulin 16 Years Old and Asiago
They work very well together. Balanced. Whole grain or spelt bread bridge works here.

Lagavulin 16 Years Old is a widely-owned, classic peated whisky, but Ardbeg 10 Years Old worked well with both cheeses too. When matching to cheese, compatibility comes down more to the strength of the peat and less, surprisingly, to whether it had the marine or medicinal notes typical of the Islay whiskies. I tried whiskies that source their peat from other regions. The American single malt by Kings County Distillers (USA) uses peat from the Highlands.

The effect is gentle. Connemara Peated Irish Whiskey is more heavily peated than the Kings County, but also lacks marine notes. Both the Kings County and the Connemara worked well with the Fontina and the Asiago. So start with your favourite peated whisky and just experiment!

Now let’s add some chocolate:

Care to create a flavour-packed triad? In general, what works with peated whiskies is a dark chocolate that has some spice notes in its profile. Here are my picks.

1. Marou (Vietnam) Tien Giang Dark
Chocolate 70 per cent with Fontina and Lagavulin 16 Years Old
Bold balance of brown fruit and spice respect all that the whisky and cheese bring to the experience.

2. Pump Street Bakery (UK) Madagascar
Dark Milk Chocolate 58 per cent with Asiago and Ardbeg 10 Years Old
If you’re a die-hard milk chocolate fan, try this one. The citrus notes found in this Madagascar are sufficiently off set by the milk enabling it to work with the cheese and this peated whisky.

3. Pump Street Bakery (UK) Honduras
80 per cent with Asiago and Lagavulin 16 Years Old
High octane cacao with winey fruit, smoky molasses and spice notes holds up to the power of the whisky and the cheese.

4. Fruition Hispaniola (USA) 68 per cent
has just enough spice, fruit and extra sweetness to work with the almost any peated whisky. Try it!
In the United Kingdom, Fruition Chocolate (USA) is distributed by, a good place to find any of the chocolate bars recommended here. In the USA, find Fruition online at

Words R.M. Peluso