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“You have to be a romantic to invest your yourself, your money, and your time in cheese.” Anthony Bourdain.
I must be a romantic!
I have a boundless curiosity about the culture of food. No pun intended, although cheese making is a process that is about culture, the culture of bacteria! When we travelled to Europe for the first time, we were awakened to the beautiful and diverse flavors of cheese. In France, we were in the fromageries daily before lunch, ordering “un peu morbier, s’il vous plait,” demonstrating with our hands the size of the slice desired, and ordering a variety to sample. “Oui, and you must try,” the shop keep would always graciously offer tastes of cheeses, especially those of their particular region, because the French take much pride in their regional products Expect spectacular Camembert in Normandy, the very special Reblochon in Savoy, a fresh cheese that is made from the second milking of specific breeds of dairy cows. In the Alsace, nutty Gruyere has a prominent place in foods, perhaps melted on a Tarte Flambe, those luscious, crisp flatbreads topped with caramelized onions and lardons (chewy batons of French bacon). There are so many choices in France, literally hundreds of varieties of cheese. Morbier, by the way, is a creamy, mild semi-soft cheese from the Franche-Comte region, which has a layer of cheese made from the morning milking, and a layer of cheese from an evening milking, separated by a layer that was once ash, but is now a vegetable substance.
In Italy, we had the same practice, different language! We would go into a small salumeria to purchase a bit of salami, a bit of ham, and sharp, stinky cheese, or mild and creamy, always asking for the specialty of the region. In northern Italy, in the Lombardy region near the beautiful Lake District, the choice might be a mild, creamy Robiola with the flavors of mushrooms and sweet milk. This same region is the one that gives us Taleggio, which is often made from raw cow’s milk from very happy cows who have been grazing in summer alpine meadows, so the cheese has a milky, flower and herbs flavor when it has been properly ripened in a cave. In Ireland, you find the Cashel Blue, a creamy, medium sharp blue that is great topping for a grilled steak. Between Great Britain and Ireland, there are hundreds of great cheeses to be sampled.
So many choices, so how do you select cheeses for a memorable cheeseboard for a cheese and wine tasting event or for an introduction to a dinner with friends? There are no real rules about creating a great cheese plate, but there are some general guidelines that can help you to create a balanced one. The first consideration is when to serve a cheese plate. In France, cheese plates are served after the main dish prior to dessert, or as the final course of a meal instead of a sweet dessert. The French viewpoint is that cheese is a digestive aid. In Italy, the cheese course is part of an antipasti, or “to begin” course, to awaken the tastebuds. Most often, I serve a cheeseboard as a first course. But, you decide at what point in your meal to serve a cheese board, and this will shape your selections.
Here are some basic guidelines, gleaned from references that I keep on hand, several good primers on cheese and regularly purchased Culture magazine, which is all about cheese.
- Cheese does not improve in flavor in the refrigerator. Buy it as close to the day that you will serve it as possible.
- Shop for cheese only where you are encouraged to taste.
- Talk to the cheesemonger, if you can. They are specialists, who can speak about sources and fully describe the flavors of a cheese, and can make great recommendations about selecting cheeses and accompanying flavors for your cheeseboard.
- Be adventurous–try small batch, artisanal and imported regional cheeses with a variety of textures, tastes and from fresh to very aged. Use all of your senses to select–observe the colors, see and taste the different textures from creamy to grainy, and take in the fragrances.
- Think about complimentary flavors. Fresh and dried fruits pair well with cheeses–tart apples, sweet pear slices, sweet fresh figs, grapes, dried apricots (perhaps soaked in a bit of brandy) toasted nuts. honey. For example, Stilton is wonderful drizzled with honey and eaten with toasted walnuts. There are many pricey condiments and preserves in the market these days, but a simple, quality apricot preserve or fig preserves pair well with semisoft, creamy cheeses, like brie. Perhaps a homemade bacon-caramelized onion jam paired with a very sharp cheddar. Just choose one standout.
- Think about the appearance of your cheese plate. I have a lovely porcelain cheese platter from France, but I really love the rustic, natural appearance of wood cheeseboards.
- Invest in some proper cheese knives that are appropriate to the task–spreaders for soft cheese, and tools right for breaking hard, aged cheeses into chunks, etc.
- Think about some fresh herbs or flowers for decoration.
- Always take the cheeses out of the refrigerator at least one hour prior to serving, and then their flavors and aromas will be at their most intense.
- Allow 2 ounces of each type of cheese per person. Select 3 to 5 cheeses, and a few larger wedges look better than many small wedges.
- Aim for diversity of tastes, textures and appearances. Select a goat milk or sheep milk cheese in addition to cows milk cheeses. Select fresh cheeses, aged fresh cheeses, soft, semi-soft, semi-hard and hard very aged cheeses.
- Crusty bread is, in general, better for cheese tasting than crackers. Crackers often have too much flavor that interferes with really tasting the flavor of the cheeses.
- Encourage your guests to begin wit the fresh, soft cheeses and to make their way around the cheese board to the most aged, piquant cheese. If you begin with the most piquant cheese that makes your tongue “buzz,” then it may be difficult to appreciate the milky mildness of a fresh cheese.
What about wine pairings with a cheeseboard? In general:
- Pair crisp whites or a hard cider with fresh and soft cheeses, maybe a Pinot Grigio or a Sauvignon Blanc.
- For sweeter, semi-soft cheeses, such as Port Salut, serve a fruit-forward, full flavored white, such as a Chardonnay.
- The harder and darker the cheese, the red and more full-bodied wines are best.
- Sweet wines, such as a red Moscato, a Sicilian Pantelleria, or a good Port pair well with blue cheeses.
Here are my selections for the cheeseboard for a dinner party:
Chevre fresh goat cheese, rolled in fresh herbs and freshly ground black pepper
Port Salut, a fresh, semi-soft slightly sweet cheese from France
Beemster Goats milk gouda, a semi-hard gouda from northern Holland with a nice herb-like flavor note, because the cows are grass fed
Aged Manchego from Spain, a harder, sharper, slightly salty cheese
Beemster Aged Gouda, the chunk of dark golden-colored cheese, the hardest, longest aged and sharpest cheese on the plate.
Finally, a creamy, piquant Point Reyes Blue.
Ripe fresh figs have been plentiful in the markets lately, so quartered fresh figs, toasted and salted assorted nuts, some hot cherry peppers, and two preserves were served, a plum preserve spiced with cumin, and a pear preserve with white wine. We had Sauvignon blanc, a Beaujolais and a Merlot on hand for sipping with the cheese. There was a basket of crusty baguette, cut into thin slices.
We were transported to other countries, with visions of alpine meadows, moldy caves, happy cows, and we were romanced!