Sometimes soft and creamy, other times crumbly and sharp or melted with a smooth, luxurious texture, cheese isn’t just for topping off a burger; it’s an experience of indulgence on the foundation of an ancient tradition. Production starts with the shepherd on the hill, the farmer wrangling a dairy cow into a stall and milking from a wooden stool. The milk gets processed, molded, sometimes wrapped in wax or the paper-thin layer of spruce cambium. From there it waits in a cave or a cellar, patiently becoming a delicacy. It’s a process that was perfected thousands of years ago, but takes on new form and meaning as young cheese-makers innovate. So when it comes time to serve cheese to friends and family, you need to do more than just put the stuff on a plate. You’ve got to understand what makes one cheese different from the next and why. The best thing you can do is talk to someone who knows cheese better than you do. Most often, that’s the guy behind the counter at your local cheese shop. Adam Goddu, a cheesemonger with Murray’s Cheese, arguably the most famous cheese shop in New York City, walked us through the dos and don’ts of assembling an ideal cheese plate.
Guiding Your Choice
To serve the perfect sampling of cheeses, you can’t be shy. A boring plate ruins the vibe, so pick things you haven’t tried before and bring home some cheeses that have more eccentric flavors than a ball of mozz. But don’t buy four cheeses that are all overwhelmingly strong — pick a good range. At Murray’s, they refer to this range as “mild to wild”. That means you want a cheese that’s not too intense — mild — and a cheese that has more of a punch to it. The wild one. It’s good to have a sampling of cheese types as well. There are four different kinds of milk commonly used to make cheese: cow, sheep, goat and water buffalo. We picked one of each for our cheese plate, but choosing combos or doubling up on your favorite is okay, too. You should try to include a hard cheese, a soft cheese and a blue cheese at the very least. As far as amount, assuming the cheese is the centerpiece to your evening, you should get about six ounces of cheese per person. So, if you’re getting four cheeses for four people, get six ounces of each.
Brebirousse D’Argental: It’s a sheep cheese from the French Alps and tastes like thick, creamy butter. While it’s a definite crowd-pleaser, it’s not boring or bland. The flavors are subtle but distinct.
Challerbocker: The name translates to “sitting in the cellar” because the cow milk cheese is aged a minimum of 10 months, which brings out its rich, deep flavors. This is the ultimate picnic cheese, as it’s firm enough not to melt in the basket while still being creamy.
Persille de Rambouillet This French goat cheese doubles as a blue cheese. It’s smooth, creamy as hell and strong enough to surprise even the most experienced cheese tasters. Pair it with a strong beer, walnuts and honey.
Quadello di Bufala You probably don’t realize how common water-buffalo cheese is. Your favorite mozzarella is made from this stuff. But the Quadello is a different story. It’s almost as thick as clay but smooth and soft once you bite through it. Its flavor is distinctly creamy and buttery, a crowd favorite without being boring.
Complementing the Flavors
The other things you might want to include with the cheese are some mixed flavors and textures from other foods. Nuts are a great salty addition and go well with just about any cheese on the plate. More fun, though, are fruits, jams and jellies. Goddu suggests a more savory jam — for example, a tomato-based one. One good fruit to include is dried apricots, but a selection of dried cherries will really steal the show. Paired with Marcona almonds, which are fried in sunflower seed oil, you have a delicacy fit for a king. Honey is also a great side for some of the tangier cheeses like strong goats and blues. You don’t want too much of the sticky stuff, but a dot of it here or there can add a change of flavor to a cheese your palate has gotten used to.
There’s always charcuterie, of which there are endless options. The cured meats make a great addition to an evening, but be careful picking for your cheese plate. You don’t want overpowering meat flavors, so try something without too much salt and without seeds or pepper flakes, as they distract from the meat’s subtler flavors.
Of course, you’ll need something to bring all of this deliciousness from the board to your mouth. Crackers and bread are your friend here, and, aside from sandwich bread or graham crackers, you can’t really go wrong. We like the varied texture of bread, but this is really up to your preference.
Drinks are a key to any party, but especially to enjoying cheese. While the classic choice is red wine, for which there are endless, complicated combinations to try, a fun choice is pairing with liquors and beers. One of our favorites is the excellent combination of gouda with whiskey.
Setting the Stage
Finally, you serve. Make sure you have all your cheeses out in room temperature about an hour to an hour and a half before you start eating them. Goddu says cold cheese is the most common mistake he sees. It’s an easy fix, and it makes a big difference. Just like airing out wine, have cheese warm up to bring out all of the flavors and achieve the proper texture. If you’re bringing your cheeses out for a picnic, don’t worry about insulating them too much during the journey, unless it’ll be more than a few hours. The only thing to be careful of is a soft cheese melting and releasing oils all over your gear. To avoid this, pack it in a leakproof container, but don’t constrict it; make sure it has room inside the tupperware to breath a little.
Aesthetics go a long way to making the cheeses feel, and even taste, luxurious and delicious. To make your board beautiful, arrange the cheeses across a cutting surface and scatter in your chosen sides. Pair a cheese with a certain nut that was recommended to you, or lay them out randomly and let guests try different combos throughout the night.
Adam Goddu is an assistant manager at Murray’s Cheese on Bleecker Street in New York City. His favorite American cheese-maker is Vermont Creamery, whom he credits with bringing high-quality chèvre (goat cheese) to the States.
Protecting Your Investment
After you’ve wined and dined, you might still have cheese left over. Don’t let it go to waste. Hard cheese like cheddars and parmesans can stay out at room temperature for up to a week, but you should treat your soft cheeses a little more delicately. Wrap them in cheese paper, or if that’s not available, wax paper will do. Then put them in the driest part of your fridge, which is probably the vegetable drawer. Don’t wrap the cheeses in plastic wrap; this traps in the moisture, and they won’t continue to age well. A good rule of thumb: if the mold on the cheese is red or black, don’t eat it. White, green or blue mold should be scraped off, but the cheese is still good to eat.