Cheese plates are a nice addition to any gathering, from a dinner for a few friends all the way up to a large wedding reception. The most often seen cheese tray is at a wine and cheese party, though, so your pairings for tasting must be carefully chosen.
I will concentrate on this last serving for today’s blog to keep it fairly simple and give you an idea that may be expanded on to fit your own cheese tasting experiences.
You will want to present a selection that offers several of tastes and textures, and there are plenty to choose from in the cheese world. Don’t be daunted by the variety. It’s not as difficult as may seem to choose just a few. Pick 3-5 cheeses so that your guests can experience each without confusion or being overwhelmed.
Start your list with a cheese that is familiar to your guests. A cheddar makes a good starting point. Having your other choices be easy to cube and handle can be reassuring to guests, especially if you are introducing your audience to new things.
Soft cheeses are often the choice for melting, but they are also delightful for tastings. They most often spread well and may be served on crackers that are sturdy, but not dense. There are any number of soft cheeses that are flavored (naturally buttery or with added taste sensations such as garlic or raspberry), and will offer a singular mouth feel.
Boursin, Queso Fresco, Chevre (goat cheese), and fresh Mozarella are all readily available and interesting in both flavor and texture.
While there is some overlap between the soft and creamy cheeses, each type offers unique selections. Butterkase, Camembert, Danablu, and Cahill’s Irish Porter Cheddar all have their own flavors while sharing a creamy texture.
These cheeses match up with acidic flavors and crisp textures such as whole wheat crackers or apples.
This is the range of firmness most commonly seen by most Americans: Cheddar, Swiss, Monterrey Jack, Gouda, and Provalone. For specifics, Kerrygold’s Blarney Castle, Applewood, Colby Swiss Cheddar (or just Colby), and Jarlsberg.
Pair these cheese with party sized breads such as pumpernickel and baguette. Serve with simple jellies, jams or preserves. Apricot and fig are popular.
Flavored Semi-Hard Cheeses
Many cheddar and similar types of cheeses are now available in flavored varieties. These cheeses are created using the same time-honored method most readily recognized in blue cheeses – where the flavoring has been stirred into the curds before they are pressed into molds. Some popular examples are Sage Derby, Pepper Jack, Red Windsor, and White Stilton with Mango and Ginger.
As these cheeses are already flavored, pair them simply with mild flavored crackers.
Most of the semi-hard cheeses mentioned above can be found in smoked varieties. Smoked Gouda and Tillamook Smoked Black Pepper White Cheddar are extremely popular examples.
Nuts make a nice accompaniment for these cheeses. I have enjoyed them with smoked baby oysters and sliced baguette as well.
Gouda and Fontina age remarkably well, each changing in flavor, texture and hardness at different stages of the aging process. Pair them with things that will balance the flavors. Caramelized nuts or English mustard work well.
Parmesan, Asiago, Romano and other hard or brittle cheeses may be used, but generally have very strong flavors and can be difficult to slice and serve in such a way to be easy for guests to handle. If your guests are cheese officionados, they shouldn’t be afraid of a little crumbling.
Pair these cheeses with green and red grapes as a counterpoint to both texture and the strong flavors.
The links included above go to cheese specific pages, many of which offer suggestions for wine pairings.
Setting Up your Platter
A large wooden cutting board or cheese board will make an excellent surface to present your cheeses on, and will allow you to offer cut pieces as well as the remainder of the whole cheese for a good visual effect. The whole piece may be cut right there if you need additional servings.Depending on your selections, parsley, cilantro or mint may be used for a bit of garnish on the platter. If there is room, crackers and fruits may be included, or served on separate dishes. Mustards, jams, or other wet offerings should be served in separate bowls.
Make labels to display on your platter. Small fold-over cards, or cards mounted on toothpicks which are inserted into the respective cheese work well. They may be hand-written or pre-printed to suit your gathering.
Don’t be afraid to try new things. There are literally thousands of cheeses worldwide, and with so many of them now available in groceries an markets across the US, they are readily available to consumers. Taste them, cook with them, share them with your friends!