What does Houston taste like? Our food scene rightfully receives national attention for its diversity and creativity, but the correct answer isn’t Viet-Cajun crawfish, Ninfa’s fajitas, or freshly-shucked oysters straight out of the Gulf. Houston actually tastes like clover, Chinese tallow, fruit trees, and common garden herbs.
We don’t condone kneeling down and taking a hearty lick off a nearby empty lot to prove or disprove this statement; instead, pair local honey with local cheese. This makes for a simple, delicious way to not only add sweetness to an often salty staple, but also to showcase the unique terroir endemic to our region.
“Both honey and cheese share a very proud sense of terroir, which is the taste of a place. The environment they are grown in, the blossoms, the weather, the grass ... everything around them really molds the way they taste,” says Nicole Buergers, founder of Bee2Bee Honey Collective. “With honey, it’s where the bees are foraging, and they bring that specific location and specific taste back to the hive.”
Such hyper-localization makes it a natural accompaniment to any cheese.
Houston Dairymaids owner Lindsey Schechter notes that the flavor of cheese—more accurately, the milk that eventually becomes cheese—depends on local flora just as much as honey.
“When you talk about the terroir in cheese, you’re usually talking about raw milk cheese,” she says. "When you pasteurize, you lose a lot of the cultures in the milk that create unique flavors in the cheese that are unique to what is coming off of a particular farm."
Schechter says that when tasting cheese from local producers like the family farm Veldhuizen in Dublin, you're tasting the evolution of its pasture, from how the cows are moving about to how they're grazing and interacting with the land.
"You can see differences in the cheese depending on how much green grass the cows are eating," she says. "You’ll see will get a sort of deeper yellow color and you’ll taste differences in the flavors of the cheese.”
Schechter works closely with Buergers—who also takes on part-time duties at Houston Dairymaids—on organizing the shop’s honey and cheese tastings and tending to the two-box hive in the back. Buergers brings in honey collected from around Houston, which is then labeled to indicate which neighborhood it represents. The cheese shop also receives a harvest from Janice Schindler at Urban Honey in Bellaire.
Schechter says blue cheese is a natural pairing for honey, as the latter's sweetness nicely counteracts the cheese's saltiness. Another tip: Match the strength of the honey with a compatible cheese—as in, a lighter honey pairs with a lighter cheese.
Fortunately, finding the right local honey for your own palate is as easy as sampling what’s available. Bee2Bee, the Houston Natural Beekeeper’s Association, the Harris County Beeker’s Association, and the Houston Beekeeper’s Association are all fine resources. Purchase harvests from different neighborhoods during different seasons. Note the variations.
Buergers notes that Houston’s spring honeys “have the most nuance” because of the sheer number of plants in bloom at the time. During the winter, the texture and flavor becomes more “molasses-like.” Despite the diverse range of options available, home chefs needn’t fret about whether their new pot of honey will stand alone.
“We haven’t found (a honey) that doesn’t pair well. Cheese and honey are so complementary to each other; you can usually find the right cheese for any honey,” Schechter says.
As for accoutrements and presentation, she recommends adding roasted nuts—particularly hazelnuts—for more depth to cheeses with nuttier flavors and darker honeys. Another possibility revolves around highlighting terroir, for example a cheese, honey, fruit, vegetable, and/or nut all originating from the Gulf Coast.
Presenting local honey within its natural comb brings the sweetness along with a unique texture, for cheese plate enthusiasts looking to play with its candy-like properties.
“That is the purest form of honey,” says Buergers, “I like the way it kind of melts on your tongue and explodes in your mouth. I really feel like honeycomb is the best way to experience honey.”
However, Buergers points out that the ultimate local honey and cheese pairing is “personal preference.” The fun comes from knowing the origin of these foodstuffs, then mixing and matching them to find the combinations that make your mouth sing.
And it's a lot more fun than dragging your tongue along a grassy median.