When I was a kid going to Portage Park school on Chicago's northwest side, I thought it very odd that some kids brought cream cheese and grape jelly sandwiches for lunch. It just seemed wrong. Jelly with peanut butter, sure. But with cheese, no way! But I was just a kid. I learned better.
Fruit (whether whole, in wine or jam) is a natural complement to cheese; the slight acidity of some fruits plays off the richness of the cheese, and the sweetness seems to work well with the saltiness of both milder and more aggressive cheese flavors
Lydia Burns of Marion Street Cheese Market prefers jams rather than jellies because "jams usually don't contain corn syrup," which can alter the fresh flavor of the fruit. "I wouldn't use Smuckers with any cheese," said Burns. After speaking with Burns, I checked the ingredients lists for Smuckers jellies and found that just about all contain high fructose corn syrup. This kind of commodity jelly would not be my first choice to accompany cheese.
For our cheese, Lydia chose Dante, which she described as a "Midwestern manchego." This artisanal cheese from of Cedar Grove, Wisconsin, is indeed similar to the dry, pleasingly "sandy" quality of that classic Spanish cheese of the same name. With this cheese, Lydia served a tomato jam from Mitica in Spain, which had a good bit of acidity and a dialed-down sweetness. Plus, it looked great.
Reflecting on the combination of cheese and jam, Burns speculated that "jam might make a more robust cheese accessible," and that's probably true. Though the Dante was not a strong cheese, it added richness and saltiness without a lot of loud flavors, so the jam was not overwhelmed.
What really made the flavors pop for both cheese and jam was a strip of Serrano ham. But what plates are not improved with a little pork?
Dante is available at Marion Street Cheese Market for $6.25/lb, and Mitica Jam is on the shelves at $9.99 for a 200 gram jar…and I'd really recommend getting a few strips of Serrano ham, too.