How to Pair Cheese and Chocolate

Local cheesemonger enchants taste buds with educational events
Photographs by EE Berger

Mustard seed Cotswold and chocolate fruit bark. Triple cream cow’s milk cheese and dark chocolate. While they may seem like odd duos at first, to Zach Berg, they’re just the beginning of pairing possibilities.

“The sweetness plays with the salt,” says Berg as he tries a milk chocolate truffle with a peppercorn-spiked Bridgewater cheese.

“It creates this uber-dairy experience.”

Berg is director of operations and staff development at Gayle’s Chocolates in Royal Oak. He’s also a certified cheese professional.

Like a sommelier is to wine and a cicerone is to beer, a certified cheese professional gains the title after rigorous testing by the American Cheese Society.

As one of the nearly 750 people in the U.S. who hold the distinction, Berg certainly knows the ins and outs of cheese. And he’s using his knowledge to redefine the chocolate shop’s approach to taste through periodic cheese pop-ups under his new business, Berg’s Provisions.

Berg began honing his craft for cheesemongering — the art of selling cheese — at Zingerman’s Delicatessen in Ann Arbor about a decade ago. After attending a bacon tasting at the eatery, Berg, a hospitality grad from Michigan State University who grew up kosher in West Bloomfield, was eager to join the team. He started at the cheese counter, and remembers an epiphany he had while trying a sheep’s milk cheese from the Pyrenees.

“Before that point in my life, it was cheddar, Swiss, Gouda. I just didn’t explore,” Berg says. “When I started tasting artisan cheeses, it was a very quick love affair.”

After he absorbed all the information he could at Zingerman’s, his penchant for cheese and artisanal foods led him to Napa Valley, California, in 2010 for culinary school. After graduating, he moved to San Francisco to briefly work in fine dining before returning to his first love: cheese. He eventually worked his way up to the head of the cheese department at Bi-Rite Market, a specialty grocery store run by a few ex-Zingerman’s employees, and placed second in the first San Francisco Cheesemonger Invitational in 2014.

Berg decided to move back home last summer, citing the food revolution that metro Detroit had been undergoing, and new restaurants, such as Selden Standard, as inspiration.

“I work in specialty goods and wanted to see what the big cities were offering,” Berg says. At the time, he felt that staying in Detroit would not have helped that process. “Now I feel just the opposite.”

Berg launched Berg’s Provisions last fall. Hosting pop-ups for his business at the Gayle’s chocolate shop was a natural fit for the cheese expert, who had held tastings that incorporated various specialty ingredients at his previous jobs. The surprisingly good pairing of cheese and chocolate, which Berg didn’t originally know would complement each other, happened to be a bonus.

Although Berg knew little about chocolate when he started, he was drawn to the shop because he considers its products — which include stiletto-shaped milk chocolate statues, hand-rolled truffles, rich milkshakes, and hot chocolate — to be great. Plus, working in a small, family-owned business is important to him.

Berg likes to tell stories at his pop-ups. Guests can learn about the cheddar-making process, his experience exploring creameries in Vermont and cheese caves in New York, and how Gayle Harte, owner and founder of Gayle’s Chocolates, started her business in her Huntington Woods home in the late ’70s, and more.

The inviting setting of the chocolate shop allows his pop-ups, which can feature about 15 cheeses at a time, to feel more intimate than a traditional grocery store. Guests are welcome to mix and match samples to create their own pairings.

Berg has also held pop-ups at House of Pure Vin in Detroit and private residences.

Inspired by the path wine and craft beer have taken in the past couple years, he plans to expand on this approach to cement his business and himself as a tastemaker.

As far as his favorite cheese and pairings, Berg says he enjoys mountain-style offerings, such as Gruyere and fontina, and that decadent triple cream cheeses go well with super dark chocolate.

However, as much knowledge as he has, he still encourages guests at his pop-ups to “break rules” and explore pairing possibilities.

“People want cheese … with a little bit more of an experience than just a transactional Saran wrapped piece of something that they don’t know anything about and bought out of a bin,” says Berg. He considers the lack of specialty cheese shops in metro Detroit as an area of opportunity for Berg’s Provisions.

“I’m fond of saying there’s a time and a place for all cheeses,” he says. “Eat, taste, see what happens.”

Berg’s Provisions pop-ups are held at Gayle’s Chocolates, 417 S. Washington Ave., Royal Oak; 248-398-0001; Stay up to date with Berg’s cheese happenings on Instagram at @mobileberg and Facebook at @Bergsprovisions

Taste Test

With his new gig at Gayle’s Chocolates in Royal Oak, cheesemonger Zach Berg’s attention has shifted to the pairing of chocolate and cheese. Here’s how you can get in on the sweet and savory sensation. 

For those who wish to mix cheese and chocolate, Zach Berg suggests combining Red Dragon, a cow’s milk cheese studded with mustard seeds that’s made in the U.K., with Gayle’s Super Fruit Bark, which features a blend of dark chocolate and freeze-dried fruits. “A balance of sweet, tangy, and savory all playing well together to give you a unique flavor combination,” he says.

Zingerman’s Bridgewater, another cow’s milk cheese that contains black peppercorns, and Gayle’s Cardamom Truffle also work well together. “The pepper is the perfect undertone for the earthy sweetness of the cardamom,” Berg says.

However, despite his expertise, he insists that most anything can go together if you really have a taste for it.

1. Red Dragon from Somerdale Cheese
2. Bridgewater from Zingerman’s Delicatessen
3-6. Gayle’s Super Fruit Bark, Cardamom Truffle, Michigan Cherry White Chocolate Truffle, and Milk Chocolate Truffle from Gayle’s Chocolates