Alimentary, My Dear
A Shore Lunch With a Difference
By Tamia Nelson
December 15, 2009
Cheese is great paddling fare. It travels well, for one thing. With careful packing, you can enjoy it on every day of all but the longest expeditions. And you won't get bored. There's a cheese for every appetite and any menu. In fact, there's no better centerpiece for a shore lunch — at least when the fish aren't biting. But this isn't exactly the season for shore lunches, is it? Not in Canoe Country, at any rate. Still, that's no reason to forgo the pleasure till spring. You just need to do a little lateral thinking. Change the venue. Spend a few minutes at the HyperMart's deli section. Open a bottle (or two) of wine. Then invite a couple of your paddling buddies over to your place for — you guessed it — a shore lunch with a difference. The rivers may now be rigged for silent running, their voices muffled by a blanket of snow, but there's more than one way to break the ice!
Paddling is about partners, after all. Even solo paddlers double up from time to time, for safety's sake if for no other reason, and cheese and wine are also a natural pairing. Don't worry if you're a little unsure which wines go best with which cheeses. This isn't rocket science, and…
Is an art that anyone can practice. You don't need to own a wine cellar, either. The object of the exercise is to enjoy a meal with your friends. Period. There are two basic strategies. One is to pick cheeses that you know you like — or that you want to try — and then purchase the wine. If you buy your cheeses at a specialty shop, whether it's in town or online, the seller will probably have a few ideas about suitable wines. Even the deli clerk at the HyperMart can often help. And don't worry. If the match doesn't work out, you can always arrange for an amicable parting and then eat (or drink) your mistakes separately.
I said there were two strategies, didn't I? Well, yes, I did. And what's the other one? Easy. It's the inverse of the first approach. Simply choose a favorite wine, and then pick one or more cheeses to accompany it. Ask the wine seller what cheeses he (or she) recommends. Many local shops have wine and cheese tasting get‑togethers, and they're often worth attending. Of course, you can always organize your own. Look at these as the culinary equivalent of a scouting trip on an unfamiliar waterway. You may end up investigating a few blind channels. You may even run hard aground. But that's all part of the fun. Books, magazines, and websites can help, too, though most foodie publications tend to gravitate toward the upper end of the market. If you're a banker with a bonus that's starting to burn a hole in your portfolio, this is all well and good, but if your means are more modest, you may want to do your exploring on the cheap. The good news? Either way, you're pretty much guaranteed a great time.
Want some ideas to get you started? OK. Here are…
A Few of My Favorite Things
I usually opt for a one‑wine‑and‑many‑cheeses game plan, in which the wine plays the supporting role and the cheeses are the stars. There are fewer glasses to wash, for one thing, and that always makes sense on a real shore‑lunch outing, where washing‑up is not a big part of the fun. And while we're speaking of the real thing, I hope no one needs to be reminded that a half‑bottle of wine isn't the best preparation for a difficult afternoon on whitewater, let alone for the drive home from the take‑out. So it's best to limit backcountry wine‑and‑cheese parties to placid waters, on days when you don't have to hurry back — or wait until you make camp, thereby changing your shore lunch into a shore supper. 'Nuff said?
But we're talking off‑season shore lunches now. Luckily, the last of the paddling weather in Canoe Country coincides with the start of the winter holidays, and when the days get short and shadows lengthen, there's no better anodyne than…
Port and Stilton This classic combination is a Christmas tradition in many outposts of Empire — that same Empire on which the sun formerly never set, but which is now pretty much relegated to the costumed confines of Masterpiece Theater and BBC America. Still, notwithstanding waning imperial fortunes, it's easy to see why port and Stilton continue to grace holiday tables around the world. Stilton is a blue cheese, but it's not just any blue cheese, and it's certainly not one of the "blu" cheeses you'll find stacked high on those islands that obstruct shopping‑cart traffic at the HyperMart. Stilton is creamy and crumbly, with a subtle flavor that manages to be distinctive without becoming overpowering. It is, admittedly, an acquired taste. But then so are many other good things, from Islay malts to beans on toast. In any case, Stilton is at its best served with port wine. A warning is in order here, I suppose: Stilton isn't cheap. But it's an affordable extravagance, and I think you'll find that you can economize elsewhere without losing much in the process. While a fine vintage port is certainly a fitting companion to the so‑called king of cheeses, I'm content with inexpensive, nonvintage ruby ports — though I draw the line at any port that doesn't originate in Portugal.
Biscuits (they're called crackers outside the remaining enclaves of Empire), walnuts, and sliced apples make up the balance of the menu. Pepperidge Farm markets a tasty assortment of crackers in the States under the Quartet name, but there are numberless alternatives, including sesame breadsticks.
Do you crave more variety? Then just add other cheeses to your board. Mild and sharp Cheddar, Gouda, "Champagne" Gouda, Edam, Brie, and Port Salut all go well with port. You can even substitute another blue cheese like Roquefort for the Stilton, if you want. (I don't.) There's only one thing you shouldn't do: Follow blinkered tradition and pour a bottle of port into the hollowed‑out midsection of a whole Stilton. Not only is this terribly expensive — a whole Stilton will set you back almost as much as a new climbing pack — but the result is a soggy, unappetizing slurry. Worse yet, it will be difficult to save the leftovers for another day. So keep your port in your glass and out of the cheese. That's my advice.
Of course, port isn't the only wine worth considering, and Stilton isn't the only cheese worthy of a star turn at table. Here are some alternatives:
Riesling and Colby Riesling is a dry white wine that's delicious with America's Colby cheeses, as well as Edam and Monterey Jack. I've had good luck with the inexpensive vintage Riesling bottled by Cavit, but there are many others. Chill the Riesling before pouring, and serve with melon, sliced apple, fresh apricots, white seedless grapes, or pears. Add crusty French bread or crackers, along with walnuts, hazelnuts or pistachios, and your table is complete.
Shiraz and Cheddar The dry red wine known as Shiraz — the Australian Yellow Tail label offers a serviceable yet inexpensive example — goes well with robust cheeses like sharp Cheddar, domestic (US) blues, Jarlsberg, and Gruyère. Serve the cheese on Melba toast rounds or squares, or on dense black bread or a hearty rye, accompanied by red seedless grapes and apples.
Chardonnay and Gruyère Chardonnay is the Zelig of white wines, and while Yellow Tail's incarnation has a pronounced gingery note that I don't care for in a dinner wine — Farwell calls it "ginger beer," and this seems about right — it suits a wide range of cheeses, from Gruyère, Bel Paese, Gouda and provolone to sharp Cheddars, domestic blues and even strong goat cheeses (another acquired taste, but then again, I love Limburger, too). Serve with French bread or rolls, water crackers or assortments like Pepperidge Farm's Quartet, then round off the meal with walnuts or pecans.
That ought to be enough to get your creative juices flowing. And once you and your friends have discovered your own favorites by diligent exploration of the offerings around the holiday table, there's no reason not to look ahead to warmer days and open water. In short, it's not too early to begin planning for next season's shore lunches, aka…
Even though a single glass of wine can dull the fine edge of any paddler's wits, and glass bottles are no longer welcome in many wilderness parks, there are still times and places where adults can enjoy a drink without endangering their lives or running afoul of regulations. On such days, and in such places, here's what you'll want to have in your pack in addition to a bottle or two of your chosen wine (pad this well), your favorite cheeses (keep them cool), and whatever treats (e.g., breads, crackers, and fruit) you've nominated for supporting roles:
- Picnic blanket (a tarp or poncho will do)
- Unbreakable plates and "glasses"
- A sharp knife for hard cheeses (preferably not a folder — easier to clean)
- Napkins (the all‑purpose bandanna makes an acceptable substitute)
A few additional cautions are probably warranted here: If you're in bear country, it's best not to press your shelter tarp or personal poncho into service as a picnic blanket — unless you're keen to have a bear or two stop by for a midnight snack later. And then there's the matter of glassware. Glass doesn't cut it in the backcountry. Or rather it can cut almost anything, including your feet, just as soon as it breaks, which it will do in minutes on any cobbled beach or stony riverbank. The solution? Stainless steel or Lexan (polycarbonate) wine "glasses." It's not an easy choice. Steel, even stainless steel, can sometimes give wine an off‑flavor, while polycarbonate can leech the "gender bender" chemical bisphenol A. Perhaps the best choice is that old camping standby, the enameled steel cup.
Crackers (or biscuits) are also fragile things, and although cracker crumbs don't pose quite the same hazard as glass shards, crackers still require special care. I use a couple of airtight plastic boxes made by Ziploc for both home storage and backcountry transport. I carry cheeses in them, as well, and they've proven particularly good at protecting the soft and semi‑soft varieties like Brie.
Sadly, though, all such delights lie in the future, at least for Canoe Country paddlers. But there's no better excuse to get together with your buddies now than that afforded by a well‑laid table. So bring your shore lunch inside until the day when the rivers once again run free. And don't forget the corkscrew!
The shore lunch is a venerable paddling tradition, but the boating season is drawing to a close in Canoe Country. This doesn't mean you can't still have a shore lunch, though. You just need to change the venue. Want to give it a try? Good! Simply grab a few things the next time you're at the HyperMart. A loaf of bread. A bottle of wine. Some carefully selected cheeses. Then add a couple of good friends and lots of happy memories. You'll have a holiday meal that can't be beat. And that's alimentary.
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