By Mimi Kmet
Martin Rusev knows a chêvre from a perroche, a Roquefort from a gorgonzola, by taste. He can tell whether a cheese was made with sheep’s milk or cow’s milk. He’s an expert at pairing cheese with condiments and wine. He is a Certified Cheese Sommelier in the Crystal Dining Room of Crystal Symphony; and he prepares perfect cheese plates for guests who prefer, say, Muenster and manchego over mousse for dessert.
I sat down with Rusev during a recent luxury cruise and asked about his profession and his passion for it.
How did you become a Certified Cheese Sommelier?
In 2008, Crystal selected a few crew members [in the food-and-beverage department] from each ship to attend a very intensive, three-week, on-board course. I was one of those people. A teacher from the International Cheese Academy in Austria came on board, and we had training every morning for three hours, starting with how the cheese is made and the history of the cheese. And then, we went country by country, identifying different cheeses. Part of the training was pairing cheese with wine and with different condiments. The last week of the course, we had to pass a test.
Why did you decide to take this course?
Personally, I love cheese very much. Also, the world of cheese is so wide and so interesting. It keeps growing, with Old World cheeses from Europe and New World cheeses from the United States, Australia, and New Zealand.
Cruise lines have always offered a selection of cheeses as part of the dessert menu, but has the interest from guests grown since Crystal introduced its cheese sommeliers?
Yes, definitely, because of the way the cheese is presented. We have two beautiful cheese trolleys by the entrance of the main dining room. And the aromas…you can hear the comments of the guests: “Tonight, I’m going to have some cheese at the end my dinner.” I am very busy at dessert time.
From where do you source the cheeses that you serve on board?
We have a main cheese supplier, which provides cheese mostly from the United States. But when the ship is in Australia, for example, we get a lot of cheeses from local suppliers. And when we’re cruising the East Coast, we get cheeses from Canada. A lot of blue vein cheeses are coming from Canada. Also, Wisconsin is producing very good cheeses lately. Every day, new cheeses are on the trolley, and I learn something about them; then, when I serve them to our guests, I can share some additional details. I give the guests information like what kind of milk was used, which country the cheese comes from, and how it tastes — more pungent or milder — and they really love it. Also, I tell them which cheese to start with and which cheese to eat last, because, if you start with the most pungent, you will kill the flavor of the others.
Do you work with the wine sommeliers to pair the cheeses with wine?
Yes, we work very closely with the wine sommeliers. When I have an order for cheese, I contact the wine steward and tell him a cheese plate is on the way to a table. I tell him what kinds of cheese I’m going to serve, and he checks with guests to see if they want wine. The mild cheeses, the young cheeses, go very well with sauvignon blanc or another white or light wine. The more pungent ones, the bleu cheeses, go with something sweeter, like a port wine or a full-bodied red wine.
Do you ever pair cheese with other types of beverages, like beer or spirits?
Yes. Beer goes very well with pungent cheeses, but the beer has to be heavy, with a high concentration of alcohol, like a stout.
How do you pair cheese with condiments?
If the cheese is more pungent, it goes with a sweeter condiment and a stronger wine. For example, bleu cheese goes very well with honey and truffles. The sugar pairs well with the stronger flavor of the cheese. It’s a good balance. On the condiment tray, we always have chutney — mango, apricot, or peach — which goes very well with goat cheeses and brie cheese — the young cheeses. All of our condiments are made on board. We use fresh condiments, usually grapes, and dried fruit, like figs, dates, and dried apricots. We usually have chutney and red or white port wine jelly. And honey is always there, honey mixed with shaved truffles.
Is there anything you wouldn’t pair with cheese?
At the end of the day, it’s all personal. You either like it or you don’t. You can set a standard pairing of a certain cheese with a certain wine. I might like it, but another person might not.
Featured image: Martin Rusev, Certified Cheese Sommelier (photo by Mara Wells)