Clockwise from top: Rogue Creamery Bluehorn Blue Cheese; Rogue Creamery Cheese Is Love Cheddar; Lillie Belle Sunshine Daydream 45% Bean-to-Bar Milk Chocolate; Lillie Belle Smokey Blue Truffles; Lillie Belle Columbia 70% Bean-to-Bar Dark Chocolate. ##Photo provided

Cheese + Chocolate

Persuasive pairings from Oregon Chocolate Fest

By Annelise Kelly

As with so many events, the 17th annual Oregon Chocolate Festival looks different this year. Instead of the weekend-long marathon that’s drawn chocolate lovers to Ashland over the past 16 years, the 2021 Oregon Chocolate Festival is taking place online.

While participants will miss the conviviality of in-person sampling, demonstrations and specialty meals, the online version can welcome participants from all around the globe, including from as far afield as India and Brazil, according to organizer and founder Karolina Lavagnino via her video welcome. The event retains the tradition of supporting a local nonprofit, with a percentage of this year’s proceeds going to Habitat for Humanity Rogue Valley, specifically supporting people displaced by the 2020 Alameda Fire.

While the festival offers a compelling collection of content, including multiple demos and recipes for confections and cocktails, OWP is most intrigued by the opportunities presented to explore pairings. Participants can benefit from watching experts match chocolate with cheese, wine and beer, in three separate video presentations.

Rogue Creamery + Lillie Belle

Anyone at home can partake in the cheese and chocolate pairing, thanks to the Cheese + Chocolate Virtual Tasting Box curated by Rogue Creamery in partnership with Lillie Belle Farms. The two enterprises share a parking lot with Ledger David Cellars; together they encompass the Central Point Artisan Corridor. Intrigued aficionados can order the box of two cheeses and three chocolates on the Rogue Creamery website, which includes access to the video presentation.

In a three-way conversation — among Marguerite Merritt and Alex Palomo of Rogue Creamery, and Jeff Shepherd, head chocolatier and owner of Lillie Belle Farms — learn about the pairings they present and gather insights on how to match cheese with chocolate with delicious results.

While some cheese experts routinely include chocolate on a cheese board, pairing them doesn’t naturally occur to many people — in contrast with the widespread practices of pairing wine and cheese, or chocolate and coffee. Merritt, Rogue Creamery cheese emissary and marketing manager, explains how it can work: “Chocolate, like cheese, has some fat to it, and it’s made with some percentage of dairy, so there’s a natural partnership there. Also, chocolate provides some wonderful flavor and textural comparisons to a lot of our cheeses.” Both products also have the complex flavors that result from fermentation.

Merritt notes bringing wine into the equation: “Jeff told us that it’s a little more challenging to pair wine and chocolate together, but when you have cheese in the mix; it kind of creates that bridge and allows you to more seamlessly blend the flavors inherent in wine with chocolate.”

Cheddar + Milk Chocolate

The first pairing in the box starts with Sunshine Daydream from Lillie Belle, a uniquely delicious 45% bean-to-bar milk chocolate. Shepherd explains that in this bar, he tried swapping the quantities of sugar and milk, so this one has more milk and less sugar than most milk chocolates, plus part of the milk is cultured buttermilk “which gives it this tangy back flavor at the end. I think it goes fantastic with this cheddar.” The bar definitely defies any milk chocolate expectations, with a firm snap and a resonant chocolate flavor.

The chocolate is paired with Rogue’s Creamery’s Cheese Is Love, a sharp, nutty, complex cheddar aged about three years. For every block of this cheese sold, Rogue Creamery donates a block to local nonprofits for distribution to local food banks. “This came about because of the Alameda fires we experienced in Southern Oregon last year; thousands of people lost their homes,” Palomo explained. “We were trying to figure out a way to give back [while furthering] our mission of using cheese as a force of good. We’ve donated over 2,000 pounds so far.”

Experts suggest letting the chocolate melt in your mouth so the flavors can develop; then taste the cheese.

“I love the pairing,” Shepherd noted, “I like how when the cheddar comes in, it’s got this great sharpness; it actually pulls the fruitiness of the cocoa beans out, so there’s this beautiful fruit that comes forward.” Shepherd and Palomo agree the greatest reward in any kind of pairing is the dynamic blending of two flavors that reveal a third distinct, lingering taste, such as the fruitiness.

For pairings of any kind, Palomo suggests “like with like.” So if you’re putting milk chocolate on your cheeseboard, try complementing the underlying creamy, sweet quality of the milk with a creamy cheese.

Blue Cheese + Dark Chocolate

For the second tasting, the team paired Rogue Creamery’s Bluehorn Blue Cheese, a cave-aged blue soaked in organic red wine, yielding distinctive berry notes and a browned butter finish. This one is matched with Lillie Belle’s Colombia 70% Dark Chocolate, made with small-batch beans sourced from the Arhuaco people, a mountain-dwelling indigenous community in northern Colombia. Shepherd identifies a burnt orange citrusy background to the chocolate, while Palomo tastes a note of blueberry. The fruity notes of the wine-soaked cheese and chocolate perform a tasty tango when these two are paired.

The last item in the pairing kit is a package of Smokey Blue Truffles, a longtime and hard-won collaboration between Lillie Belle and Rogue Creamery. Shepherd admits after many failed efforts: “The worst truffles on the face of the earth” finally found success by melting Smokey Blue, a mild blue cheese cold-smoked over Oregon hazelnut shells, into milk chocolate and perfecting the ratio. The finished truffle is hand-dipped in dark chocolate and rolled in chopped toasted almonds. “It tastes to me just like a chocolate cheesecake with a smoked almond crust,” Shepherd said.

Chocolate enthusiasts can still buy a pass for the 2021 virtual Oregon Chocolate Festival, and the Cheese + Chocolate Virtual Tasting Box remains available on the Rogue Creamery website.

Wine + Chocolate Pairing

Festival pass holders can learn guidelines for matching chocolate with wine from certified sommelier Molly Shaughnessy in a video presentation. She starts with general rules of thumb, such as matching the intensity of the wine and the chocolate, and moves on to negotiating the right balance of wine acidity with chocolate. She also discusses tempering wine tannins with sweet and tart components of the chocolate. From the first pairing, matching Pebblestone Cellars 2018 Grenache Rosé with Ruby Chocolate from Ashland’s own Branson’s Chocolates, you’ll be eager to try her combinations and experiment with some of your own.

There’s also a short guide to pairing chocolate with beer, courtesy of Market of Choice. The other 20 or so video presentations run the gamut, including demonstrations of chocolate-based cocktails and baked goods, tours of cacao farms, crafting bean-to-bar chocolate at home, and more.

Central Point Artisan Corridor

Anyone passing through Central Point, between Grants Pass and Medford, should make plans to stop at the Central Point Artisan Corridor, just five minutes off Interstate 5. It’s a great destination on its own: Enjoy a truly amazing solar-powered grilled cheese sandwich, plus assorted cheeses and artisan provisions from Rogue Creamery; taste big reds and small plates at Ledger David Cellars; and nosh on a variety of chocolate bars and bonbons at Lillie Belle, while safely seated outside.


Double-Chocolate, Cardamom and Pistachio Cookies

Pastry Chef Kali Kennedy, Larks Home Kitchen Cuisine

Makes roughly 30 small cookies


2 cups Scharffen Berger chocolate, rough chop

4 ounces (1 stick) unsalted butter, cubed

1¼ cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1½ teaspoons salt

2 teaspoons ground cardamom

4 eggs

1½ cups brown sugar

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1¼ cups pistachios, rough chop

½ cup Scharffen Berger chocolate, rough chop, or chocolate chips (optional)


In large bowl (or stand mixer with paddle attachment), mix eggs and sugar until smooth. In separate bowl, sift together flour, baking powder, salt and cardamom; set aside.

Over double-boiler (or in microwave at 30-second intervals), combine cubed butter and chopped chocolate. Stir occasionally until chocolate is melted, butter is fully incorporated and mixture is smooth. Slowly add chocolate mixture to egg mixture. Mix until combined. Add vanilla.

With mixer on low speed, add flour mixture to chocolate-egg mixture. Mix until flour is almost incorporated; then add pistachios and chopped chocolate (or chips). Using a spoon or spatula, finish hand-mixing all ingredients, making sure to scrape bottom and sides of bowl to fully incorporate.

Refrigerate cookie dough for at least 20 minutes. Using a large spoon or small ice cream scoop, scoop dough onto baking sheet (lined with parchment paper or sprayed with pan release) about 1½ inches apart. Chill cookie dough again for at least 20 minutes prior to baking for a better texture.

Bake cookies at 350°F for about 10 to 12 minutes. They should look dry and slightly cracked when done. Allow to cool for at least 10 minutes before transferring to storage container. Cookies can be frozen prior to baking.


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