Alongside other Valentine's Day mainstays such as seductively sweet chocolate, celebratory Champagne and sweet-smelling roses, cheese may not seem inherently romantic. Certain fromages, a creamy Sottocenere or a bubbling Swiss fondue may elicit a passionate response, but those of the more pungent variety—as anyone who has nosed a stinking Limburger or aromatic Époisses can attest—may not. Yet we regularly turn to wedges with unique aromas—bringing it on picnics, ordering a cheese plate with drinks—while wooing our beloveds.
Alex Guarneri, a passionate Parisian cheesemonger, has a theory. "It's all about the sharing," he philosophizes in a velvety French accent. "Cheese involves the different senses of our body, like in love. We smell, we touch and share from the same bowl. We talk about the cheese and pairing the wine, and this creates a really intimate moment of communication."
Lest you roll your eyes, consider the romantic's credentials. Guarneri and his brother Léo grew up in the City of Love in a family of chefs and food importers. "Our memories of childhood are going to the market, trying cheese with the producers," Léo explains. Today, they own London fromagerie Androuet, an outpost of the time-tested Paris cheese shop, and operate a cheese-centric restaurant by the same name. There, they've watched sparks erupt over countless plates of Camembert, Parmesan and Gruyère.
The Guarneris proselytize their product's seasonality, a concept regularly attributed to fruits and vegetables, but less familiar when it comes to cheese. In wintry February, they prescribe plates filled with cheeses made from spring and summer milks, left to age for half the year. They extol buttery Beauforts and toasty aged Goudas, served alongside dollops of quince paste, a few caramelized walnuts and spots of honey.
But on Feb. 14, they recommend upping the ante, using cheese as the centerpiece ingredient of a lavish Valentine's Day meal. From their cookbook with coauthor and Italian chef Alessandro Grano, A Year In Cheese, the Guarneris share a recipe for risotto with white truffle and Castelmagno, a soft, crumbly and tangy cheese from Italy's Piedmont region.
The ingredients alone—white truffles are a luxurious splurge—make this special-occasion fare, sure to impress your date. But it also allows a couple the opportunity to set aside time to cook together. To properly make risotto, "you need to be present and to take special care of the dish," says chef Grano.
Slow and steady cooking will ensure the best expression of the high-quality ingredients, all traditionally from Piedmont. Grano urges home cooks to seek out the northwestern Italian region's world-renowned arborio or carnaroli rices, the ancient Castelmagno cheese and white truffles from the town of Alba. In doing so, the dish will reveal the authentic terroir of the area.
He concedes, however, that fresh truffles may be difficult to find or exceed your Valentine's Day budget. Quality truffle paste or truffle oil make fine substitutions, but should be used judiciously and added at the same moment as the butter and cheese. "Add [the paste or oil] little by little, one teaspoon at a time, and try it, until you have a balance between the truffle flavor and the cheese," he instructs. You do not want to overpower the floral, fresh and pleasantly acidic flavors of the Castelmagno.
As a general rule for wine and cheese pairing, Alex and Léo steer guests toward white wines, which are more versatile. (Learn more about wine and cheese pairing here.) But for Valentine's Day, Alex suggests a seductive Italian red with the weight to match the hearty risotto. "A Chianti from Tuscany could be really beautiful, " he says. "With the Castelmagno, it will show minerality and a beautiful structure."
Chef Grano has other ideas. "If you really want to honor St. Valentine, I think it would be nice to do a bubbling Franciacorta, an Italian spumante. For St. Valentine's, you really want something sparkly." Below, get Wine Spectator reviews for 14 recently rated Chianti Classicos and Franciacortas for Feb. 14.
1. To make this risotto a real truffle indulgence, put the uncooked rice and the white truffle in an airtight container for several days. This will allow the fragrance of the truffle to permeate the rice, giving it an extra-rich finish.
2. On the day the risotto is required, put the stock in a pan over medium heat and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and keep the stock at a simmer. Meanwhile, remove the truffle from the container of rice.
3. Put 1 ounce of butter in a large pan over medium heat until hot. Add the shallots and sweat for 5 minutes until soft and translucent, then add the rice.
4. Stir well to coat the rice with butter. Lightly touch the surface of the rice with your fingertip; when the rice feels hot, add the wine. Stir again and cook for a few minutes until the wine has evaporated.
5. Pour in the hot stock, a ladleful at a time, so it just covers the rice each time. Wait until each ladleful has been absorbed before adding the next. Keep adding the stock in this way until the rice is just cooked al dente, then remove from the heat. The risotto must not be too dry; if you shake the pan, the rice should be “wavy” (‘all’onda’)—spreading out fluidly, but without excess liquid—in the pan.
6. Set aside for 1 minute, then add the remaining butter and stir vigorously. When the butter is well-incorporated, add the Castelmagno (if you are substituting truffle paste or oil for fresh truffle, add it now, one teaspoon at a time, to taste) and season with salt and pepper to taste. You may not need to add salt at all. Divide between the serving plates and shave the truffle over the top. Serves 4.
Note: The following lists are selections of outstanding and very good wines from recently rated releases. More wines can be found in our Wine Ratings Search.
CARPINETO Chianti Classico Riserva 2010
This vibrant red displays black cherry, tar and tobacco flavors aligned with a steely structure. Well-balanced, featuring a dense, long aftertaste that evokes underbrush nuances. Drink now through 2020. 13,500 cases made.
ANTINORI Chianti Classico Marchese Antinori Riserva 2011
A powerful, concentrated style, boasting cherry, plum, leather, earth and tobacco flavors. Fine intensity propels the long, spice- and earth-tinged finish. Balanced overall. Drink now through 2022. 5,600 cases imported.
CASTELLO DI VOLPAIA Chianti Classico Riserva 2012
Vibrant and harmonious, offering floral, strawberry, cherry and spice flavors allied to a delicate frame. Lingers with fruit and mineral notes on the finish. Drink now through 2020. 5,000 cases made.
TENUTA BORGO SCOPETO Chianti Classico 2013
Pretty cherry and strawberry notes pick up light touches of spice in this red, which is elegant, but needs air to show the fruit and tone down the oak. Fine length. Drink now through 2019. 8,000 cases imported.
FONTODI Chianti Classico 2012
This rich red features pure cherry, raspberry and subtle briar flavors, shaded by almond and tobacco accents. Firm and powerful, with a long, expansive finish. Drink now through 2022. 10,000 cases made.
MAZZEI Chianti Classico Fonterutoli 2013
Starts out with pure cherry and raspberry flavors, picking up tobacco and spice notes as the firm, vivid structure emerges. Exhibits fine length, but should be better in a year or two. Best from 2017 through 2024. 29,000 cases made.
ROCCA DI CASTAGNOLI Chianti Classico 2013
Cherry and berry, vanilla and tobacco flavors are etched onto the taut profile of this red. The finish is tight, with gum-tingling tannins. Best from 2017 through 2024. 30,000 cases made.
FRATELLI BERLUCCHI Brut Franciacorta Freccianera 2010
Bright and balanced, this well-knit sparkler boasts flavors of apple, biscuit, blackberry and lemon preserves, all set on the creamy bead. Hints of smoky mineral and spice show on the finish. Drink now through 2019. 12,000 cases made.
CAVALLERI Brut Blanc de Blancs Franciacorta NV
A rich, smoky note of roasted hazelnut underscores this sleek, creamy Franciacorta, with vibrant acidity enlivening the palate of poached pear, candied lemon zest, raspberry, toast and ground ginger flavors. Drink now through 2020. 11,667 cases made.
RICCI CURBASTRO Extra Brut Franciacorta NV
Firm and smoky, this lacy sparkler offers rich hints of pastry and marzipan, with flavors of white raspberry, fleur de sel, glazed apricot and lemon preserves. Drink now through 2018. 500 cases imported.
FERGHETTINA Brut Franciacorta Milledì 2011
Firm and focused, this bright sparkler features a rich vein of smoke and toasted brioche notes underscoring the flavors of glazed nectarine, coconut cream, crystallized honey and lemon curd. Lingering finish. Drink now through 2021. 3,300 cases made.
CA' DEL BOSCO Brut Franciacorta Cuvée Prestige NV
Fresh and open-knit, this is light-weight and airy in texture, offering a crowd-pleasing mix of floral apricot, mandarin orange, candied ginger and toasted brioche. Creamy. Drink now through 2019. 2,500 cases imported.
GUIDO BERLUCCHI Brut Franciacorta '61 NV
Firm and smoky, this minerally version offers a subtle mix of crunchy pear, toast, melon, preserved lemon and fleur de sel flavors with a clean-cut, lacy finish. Drink now through 2018. 25,000 cases made.
BARONE PIZZINI Brut Franciacorta Animante NV
Clean-cut and balanced, with a subtle, smoky undertow and flavors of Jonagold apple, mandarin orange peel and anise. Moderate finish. Drink now. 7,500 cases made.