Cheeseplate: Podda, Point Reyes Blue, Piave, Culatello
So, how do you put together the perfect cheese plate? The same way you get to Carnegie Hall: You stop at the Carnegi Deli first. Actually, you (practice x 3). And by practice, I mean eat a lot of cheese.
That said, a cheese plate is can be much more than stinky cheese on a board that you deliver to unsuspecting guests with a wearing a beret, a striped shirt and a scowl (like I do). Cheese plates can be everything from the perfect cocktail hour apertivi, a savory amuse bouche to fire up those taste buds, all the way to the final plat of your yearly 21 course gastronomical explosion extravaganza that puts Thomas Keller and Alice Waters to shame. Ahem…
The point is: it’s not rocket science. As with wine, start with what you like and work from there. Chances are if you like, it your guests will too. If you’re new to fancy pants stinky cheese, then you’ll probably want to start with some standards and maybe roll out one out-of-your-comfort-zone cheese each time just to expand your horizons. A good rule of thumb for cheese plates is a soft, a semi soft and a bleu. This “rule” is broken more often than not, however.
The best place to start your cheese buying is at a specialty grocery store. That doesn’t mean you have to break the bank, it’s that chain grocery stores (Publix, Bi-Lo. Stop N Shop, et al) typically do not have a good selection of quality cheeses. Good choices are: Whole Foods, Earth Fare, Fresh Market etc. If you live in a city, then I highly suggest hitting your local specialty deli. Be sure to ask lots of questions to the cheese-monger (yes, cheese-monger). Most folks who work the cheese counter really love cheese and have a deep knowledge of region, taste, milk type etc. If you’re new to it, then certainly let them know. You may get turned on to a cheese that you would have never considered or were too timid to try.
In terms of display, you can use a cutting board, a piece of slate or marble – pretty much any flat surface capable of being carried from the the prep area to the guests will do. You should definitely experiment.
As for utensils, each cheese should have its own knife so the cheeses don’t get mixed when guests are eating. It’s also a good idea to cut a few pieces of each cheese to encourage guests to do it in the same fashion. Another general rule of thumb is cut cheese off so that the original shape is maintained. So, for a triangular wedge of Brie (a soft cheese) cut a thin slice or two that leave the triangular shape to the main piece. For hard cheeses like Parmigiano-Reggiano you can either cut uniform pieces or as is more common, fleck off chucks with a cheese knife. Cheeses with inedible (or very hard rinds) are just fine. Don’t worry about removing them (assuming guests can get to the cheese without cutting). Also, any condiments should have appropriately sized spoons so your guests can serve themselves without making a mess. (e.g. No tablespoons in the ramekins).
Speaking of condiments, unless the container is very decorative, you should always put condiments in a new container like a ramekin or bowl.
Bread is usually welcome with any cheese plate, but not necessary at all. If you have a really expensive cheese (and stinky e.g. Époisses) and the quantity is therefore limited, you can certainly use nuts, honey or fruit to garnish. Also consider some premium charcuterie (aka salumi, cold cuts, deli meat), seasonal nuts and fruits along with your cheese, especially if you are using your cheese for cocktail hour.
The cheese plate is nothing to fear, especially if you have taken some time to consider your guests, the season and your own sense of adventure.
The board above:
The board above starting clockwise from the lower left is:
- Culatello (cold cut) – a cured Parma ham made from the prosciutto cut (the best cured meat on earth)
- Point Reyes Blue Cheese – blue cheese from Point Reyes California (tangy, tart, mildy stinky)
- Pears – organic golden pears from Massachusetts
- Podda -Sheep and Cow’s milk cheese from Sardinia (grana cheese that tastes like Reggiano and Pecorino combined. If you want a cheese that makes people go “wow, what was that?”, this is it)
- Piave Vecchio – Cow’s milk cheese. Tart, slightly grana, italian cheese)
- Pecorino Toscano (Pienza) – Sheep’s milk cheese from Pienza Italy