A cheesemaker and a cheesemonger offer tips on selecting, presenting, and understanding this essential party treat
No party table is complete without a cheeseboard. But how is a host to choose from the thousands upon thousands of types, subtypes, colors, flavors, and textures of this curdled dairy delight?
There are really only six main categories of cheese, says Neen LeMaster, N14, a cheesemaster at gourmet food shop Unwined Alexandria.
It can be fresh, which covers chèvre and ricotta, both spreadable with no rind; soft, including Brie, blue Charon, or goat cheese, which do have rinds; saggy-firm, ranging from Swiss and Gruyere to raclette, all of which are meltable and great for grilled cheese or French onion soup; or firm, covering harder, more crunchy cheeses such as Manchego, Parmesan, and aged cheddar and Gouda. Blue cheese, known for its blue veins created by injections of penicillin, is its own separate category. And finally, there are washed rind cheeses, better known as stinky cheeses.
But within these categories, there is a staggering range, according to LeMaster. “Cheese is a food product created purely as a means to preserve milk, and then humans—being humans—got so creative with it,” he says. “I love talking about just the sheer science people have figured out because they want to make something interesting to eat.”
Take Brie, which can be mushroomy or cauliflower-esque, buttery or sweet, or blue cheese, whose many subtypes can be firm (Stilton) and soft (German blues).
Further, the same cheese can be dressed up in many ways. At the recent Cheesemongers’ Invitational event, LeMaster chose pickled cherries to pair with a Manchego, and was surprised and delighted to see another participant pair it with pickled orange peel. Similarly, a creamy, meaty Red Leicester can be paired with pickles as an appetizer or drizzled with honey as a dessert.
Finding and serving the perfect cheese is worth the work, according to Molly Pindell, N05, co-owner of Sage Farm Goat Dairy in Stowe, Vermont. “Cheese is one of those foods that satisfies on multiple levels: flavor, texture, smell, and appearance to name a few,” Pindell says. “The feeling of a particularly decadent triple creme Brie melting on your tongue or the crunch of biting into a crystally, three-year-old aged Gouda is a sensual delight that delivers a lot of pleasure.”
The sheer number of cheeses out there can be intimidating—but such diversity is also a great gift, says LeMaster. “You can provide your guests with something very tantalizing, so they don’t get cranky while you have a thousand things in the oven,” he says. “And the fun you can have with it is really endless.”
Six tips on cheese
1. Know where your cheese comes from.
LeMaster visits the dairy farms from which he buys cheese, while Pindell loves asking cheesemakers questions at the farmers’ market: “How long have they been making cheese? What inspired them to become a cheesemaker? If they milk their own animals, how many animals do they have?”
The living conditions of the animals are essential to the quality of the cheese, according to Pindell. “You can't make good cheese with bad milk,” she says. “For me, as a farmer and a cheesemaker, that means making sure my animals are healthy and well fed, and making sure that they are being milked in optimal conditions in terms of hygiene and sanitation.”
If you’re traveling, stop in at the local cheese shop or grocery store and ask to sample the region’s standouts, Pindell recommends. It’s a great way to experience the area and find products that aren’t available elsewhere—and it makes for great gifts, which you can accompany with handwritten cards explaining the cheeses’ unique backgrounds. “To me, what makes a cheese unique and special is knowing the story behind the product,” Pindell says.
2. Be inclusive.
Check for allergies and eating restrictions among your guests, LeMaster says. For pregnant or immunocompromised guests, avoid raw milk cheeses, although soft cheeses that have been pasteurized are safe.
For children or adults who like to play it safe, options include mild cheddar or Brie. But for those with more adventurous tastes, LeMaster recommends cheeses such as La Tur, a soft Italian cheese made from a mix of cow, sheep, and goat milk, which has the texture of ice cream.
If you’re not sure if people will like a cheese, try buying just a small piece of it, LeMaster suggests. Pindell adds it’s worth it to encourage guests to expand their palates. “I have encountered so many customers who think they don't like goat cheese, but then they taste mine, and they love it!” she says.
3. Offer a range.
LeMaster and Pindell recommend branching out from cheeses made with cow milk and exploring those created with goat and sheep milk, as well as blends of two or three milks.
LeMaster tends to select three cheeses, while Pindell’s rule of thumb is to choose five, going in order from mildest to strongest.
She likes to start with a fresh chèvre or spreadable cow’s milk cheese, and progress to a “soft, bloomy” rinded cheese such as a Brie of Camembert, or a goat’s milk cheese with an ash rind, such as a Valencay.
Third is a semi-soft cheese with a washed or a natural rind, which “looks and feels kind of pudgy in texture.” Fourth is a firm cheese that has aged for some time, such as a cheddar, sheep’s milk tomme, or Alpine cheese.
“And for the finale, I always go with a blue cheese,” Pindell says. “It could be crumbly and firm or creamy and gooey, but to me, a well-balanced cheeseboard always finishes with a blue.”
4. Choose pairings thoughtfully.
When matching cheeses, LeMaster and Pindell both enjoy featuring products from the same geographic region. Italy, Spain, and France are great options, according to LeMaster, while Pindell suggests Vermont, California, or Wisconsin. “Another fun thing for a smaller party is to arrange a side-by-side comparison or similar style cheeses from two or three different regions,” Pindell says.
LeMaster adds that plain crackers or a baguette are great with hard cheeses, which are usually sharp with a bit of their own crunch. The same goes for cheeses with complex flavors, such as Alp’s Blossom, an alpine cheese with a floral flavor that’s rolled in pink-grained flour and herbs. “If it’s nice on its own, try not to add much, because you just want to taste your cheese,” LeMaster says. On the other hand, a simple Brie pairs well with more crackers containing dried fruit, seeds, hazelnut, which can add flavor and crunch.
You can also offer more flavors on the rest of the platter, says Pindell. “Don't be afraid to get playful with accouterments,” she says. “While jams, honeys, and fruit are generally lovely with cheese, so are more unorthodox items like potato chips, chocolate, and crunchy vegetables.”
5. Shop and serve with care.
If possible LeMaster recommends going to a store where they cut the cheese to order, so you can get larger pieces that won’t oxidize as quickly, and ordering enough for one to two ounces per guest.
Another serving tip from LeMaster and Pindell: Take your cheese out of the fridge about an hour before you serve it; we taste flavors better at room temperature.
Finally, make sure you have the right utensils, which usually means multiple utensils per board. “Firmer cheeses demand a sharp knife, while softer, gooey selections are often best served with a spoon,” Pindell says. “There are plenty of fancy cheese-specific tools out there, but regular cutlery will do just as well!”
6. Fear not the rind.
Little-known fact: With the exception of wax or bark, most cheese rinds are entirely edible, according to Pindell. Rinds should be considered an integral part of soft cheeses, Pindell advises, although with firmer cheeses, eating the rind is more of an individual choice.
“Washed rind cheeses with orangey looking surfaces often have little salt crystals near or on the rind that are quite delicious,” she says. “Natural rind cheeses with rustic, mottled exteriors can be a bit more of a challenge—some are earthy and flavorful while others can be dusty and off-putting.”
Give the rind a sniff, Pindell encourages, and if you like the smell, taste a bit.
“In general, I would like to see people try to expand their palates beyond what they think they like,” she says. “There are so many different styles of cheese available these days, if you try enough varieties, you will probably find some new things you love!”
Monica Jimenez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.