It's Friday night - the work week behind you and an easy weekend is ahead. Your table is simply set with sparkling glasses, cocktail napkins, small plates and a corkscrew at the ready. In the center are three perfect cheeses, surrounded by nuts, dried and fresh fruit. The doorbell rings, and you greet your guests relaxed and ready to enjoy the party.
How to begin
For the cheese connoisseur, the cheese plate is an artfully chosen assortment that takes guests on a journey of taste and texture. But for the beginner, it’s a mystery of flavors, shapes, styles and unfamiliar names. Many books about cheese will give excellent suggestions for cheese plates but, unless you are fortunate enough to have a world class cheese counter in your neighborhood, many of them may be difficult to find. Neither a lack of knowledge, nor the lack of an excellent cheese counter, should discourage the beginner if you follow these four simple steps.
STEP ONE – Choosing the Cheese
In the weeks before your party, do a little bit of research and find the very best place to buy cheese in your area. Your first choice for buying cheese is a good cheese shop, or a high quality cheese counter in an upscale grocer selling “hand cut and wrapped” cheeses. These cheese vendors display whole cheeses and cut the amount of cheese you want as you purchase it. You’ll see cheeses of all different shapes, sizes, colors, and ages, made from many types of milks, originating from all over the world. Fascinating…and daunting.
Don’t head for the door! Instead, talk to the cheesemonger behind the counter. An enthusiastic and knowledgeable cheesemonger can be a trusted resource. The cheesemonger can make suggestions of cheeses that will complement each other on a plate; and possibly the establishment will have a few pre-selected combinations for entertaining. Choose three to five cheeses, depending upon the size of your party. Aim for variety – hard and soft, mild and strong, cheeses that appear different on the outside and on the inside, different milk types, blue veins or not. Purchase a total quantity of cheese equal to four to six ounces per person depending upon what else you may be serving with the cheese. To inform your guests, and to begin your education about the world of artisan cheese, make note of the name of the cheese, country or region of origin, type of milk, style of cheese, and any other words that the cheesemonger uses to describe the cheese.
Purchasing cheese on-line from a cheesemaker or a reputable vendor can be a time saver. Plus, it offers you a broad selection should you be unable to find a good cheese counter in your area. Many, such as Beecher ’s , will offer collections that take the guesswork out of selecting cheese.
As a last resort, purchase some of the best cheeses your grocery store has to offer and prepare some special accompaniments for the cheese. Again, as you buy your cheeses, search for variety, avoid all pre-sliced cheeses, and don’t be afraid to buy something unfamiliar.
STEP TWO – Beverages
Everyone’s palate is different as is everyone’s taste in wine. For the novice, it can be quite enlightening to discover how the taste of a cheese can vary depending upon what wine you sip immediately before and after you put a piece of cheese in your mouth. Invite a few friends to join you in an experiment as you pair a few different cheeses with a few different wines. You will likely discover not only your own tastes, but you’ll see that individual palates vary greatly.
When you are serving a variety of cheeses, it will be unlikely that one wine will go with all cheeses, freeing the beginner from worrying about precise pairings. In all honesty, your guests are most likely to choose to drink a wine they like, regardless of how well it pairs with specific cheeses. If you choose some good quality, cheese-friendly wines to serve, yours guests will be happy. Some versatile white wines are Rieslings, Sauvignon Blanc, Champagne and Pinot Gris. Cheese-friendly red wines include Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Syrah and Pinot Noir. In general light fresh wines go with mild, fresh cheeses, stronger cheeses can stand up to stronger wines. For specific pairing suggestions you’ll find comprehensive offerings in Laura Werlin’s The All American Cheese and Wine Book.
Don’t forget there are other wonderful beverages to pair with cheeses such as cider (either hard or non-alcoholic) and craft beers. Avoid sweet sodas and beverages containing citrus.
STEP THREE – Accompaniments
When the cheese is the star of the show, the accompaniments should be simple but thoughtful. A basket of artisan or homemade bread is all the starch you need. Any crackers you serve should be flavorful but not overpowering – Beecher’s Original Crackers are excellent with cheese. Lightly toasted almonds or hazelnuts, dried fruits, good quality olives, or fresh apples, pears and grapes are simple additions to a festive presentation. Chutneys, fruit pastes and dried fruit compotes can provide additional color, texture and flavor to your tray.
STEP FOUR – Finishing Touches
It’s nearly party time – time to create an attractive presentation for your cheese. Prepare your platters 30 minutes or so in advance to ensure that the cheese is at room temperature. Arrange your cheese on a board, plate, a piece of marble or granite, a tray – anything that has a large, flat surface and is attractive. Make sure you have enough room between the cheeses to easily cut them. Use a platter for each cheese if you need to. You can line the serving plate with edible leaves, such as grape or fig leaves. Surround the cheese with your accompaniments either on the platter or in separate dishes.
To complete your presentation, provide guests with an appropriate tool to cut each cheese – a knife, plane or spreader depending upon the texture of the cheese. Set out some dessert-sized plates and napkins. Place your beverages on a separate table to ease traffic congestion.
You did it! Your cheese party is ready to be savored and, instead of slaving in the kitchen wearing an apron, you might just be sitting down pouring yourself a glass of wine, calmly anticipating the arrival of your guests. Light the candles put another log on the fire – and enjoy!
Click here for some suggestions for artisan cheese plates.