Artisanal cheese doesn’t have to be reserved for fancy dinner parties or hors d’oeuvres with the Chairman of the Board. Versatile and wine-friendly, cheese courses are classy, sure, but they don’t have to be incredibly expensive. And, because cheese is so rich, a little goes a long way.
Read on for an introduction to artisanal cheese, many of which can be had for less than $15 per pound.
What Exactly Is a Cheese Plate, Anyway?
When I say “cheese plate,” some of you will think rustic, first course, Italian-style antipasti. Others will envision a decadent vacation-like lunch paired with a salad, crusty bread and a glass of wine. And then there’s the French finisher, that compelling cheese board which replaces dessert. Once you have decided on the purpose of your own cheese plate, head off to your local cheese monger; mine is the amazing Cielo of Murray’s Cheese Shop on Bleecker Street (mark this Murray’s link in your favorites … the website is exceedingly educational). When you visit a nice cheese shop like Murray’s, you’ll be able to sample before you buy.
Balancing Your Board
Once you decide how many cheeses you’d like, you’ll have a few decisions to make. First, think about balancing the various textures on the board. My foundation is the holy trinity: a fresh cheese, a firm cheese, and a runny/gooey cheese. Next decision: what degree of intensity fits your needs? For example, cheese that is washed-rind tends to be of the stinky sort (in the best of ways!), while cheese that is well-aged tends to be sharp and assertive. There are some cheddars that taste like mossy dirt, and then again, some triple crèmes that are milder than butter (this is why tasting trumps reading descriptions). Another approach to balancing the board is to include a variety of milk types like cow, sheep, goat, or even buffalo milk. Finally, you can group cheeses by country of origin. At Murray’s, a dozen countries are represented, and I promise that not only will you make countless discoveries, but that you’ll think of “American cheese” much differently after you taste some locale-specific artisanal offerings.
Present Like a Pro
Cheese shows best when it warms to room temperature. Set up your board a few hours in advance by portioning as much cheese as you’re going to need. Wrap the extra in plastic, foil, or wax paper and store in the fridge. Line up your selections from mildest to strongest. If you’ve acquired a runny cheese, place it far away from the others on the board because its expansion and subsequent co-mingling isn’t always a sight to see. As the cheese approaches room temperature, it becomes more aromatic. If your selections are of the pungent sort, consider positioning the board in another room prior to serving.
Cheese Pairings … Oh, the Options
Although there are lots of ways to dress a cheese board, remember that there’s also a definite place for cheese alone. To really “get to know” a cheese, taste it solo. As you add components, notice how the texture and flavor of the dairy changes.
- Bread: Purists go with the classic crusty bread, or a baguette. As a dessert course, nut and raisin or cranberry bread will add a sweet dimension. Those committed to the “whole food” movement will not be disappointed with a whole wheat bread. The sweetness of the wheat brings great depth of flavor to most cheeses.
- Fruit-based food: Fresh fruit and chutneys containing vinegar can be tough to pair with wine. If dry wine is involved, opt for dried fruits, Membrillo, or quince paste to bring a contrasting sweet aspect to the cheese. You may consider dessert wines, too, as they’ll go nicely.
- Nuts: This concentrated protein is ideal for both cheese and wine pairing, especially almonds and walnuts.
- Cured meat: Prosciutto and Serrano ham are natural compliments to their regional cheesy relatives. When composing this type of board, think of serving bubbly wine, as it works best with the saltiness in these hams.
For insight into my favorite affordable artisanal cheeses, click here.