From a Chef’s Perspective: Building a great (and simple) cheeseboard

Cheese is one of my favorite things to shop for. The main difference between choosing a great wine (from a wine shop) and choosing a great cheese is that a good cheese shop will actually let you try anything before buying, and this is the sort of opportunity I always take advantage of and so should you. I understand that not everyone experiences the same joy I do when I enter the shop and feast upon the long sleek case just brimming with options. In fact, I can easily see how this display may be overwhelming and a bit claustrophobic what with the hundreds of little signs with unfamiliar terms and wordy descriptions. I am no cheesemonger, but I know in my heart, with full confidence, that I eat a lot of cheese. Here is how I put together a great cheeseboard for a party… 

How much?

Here’s my (rough) guide for purchasing cheese:

Will this be the only food at the party?

–          No, there will be dinner/other bigger dishes = 1oz. of each cheese / per person

–          Yes, this is not a dinner party = 2 oz. of each cheese / per person (but consider supplementing with other carby bites like flavored crackers and fruit so the lushes don’t get too handsy)

And to review some math: 1 pound = 16 oz.

Example: 20 guests coming over, no dinner being served. You want to serve four types of cheese. 20 guests x 2 oz. = 40 oz. 40 oz. divided by 16oz. = 2.5 pounds of each cheese

Before you go to the shop, make sure you know how much you need. Hopefully, your friends are good about RSVP’s. Mine aren’t at all, so I usually plan for 3-4 surprise guests.  If I am buying more than 2 pounds of each cheese, I split all the cheese onto two boards and have them in two different areas so that no one is left staring longingly at the cheese from afar due to crowding.

The Shop

The first step of making this process easier is finding a good cheese shop and going on the quieter days, probably weekdays. Now you’re there, you’re ready, and you don’t know where to start. This is when the pros come in. If you are anything like me, you don’t like to bother people. Even the people who are paid to be there for you to bother. But when you are paying for a premium product (like wine, cheese, or a car…) you have to ask for guidance. Trust me, they want to help. Some good conversation starters…

How is your selection organized?

Some cheese shops organize by country, some by milk type, some by texture/firmness. Once they explain their “map” to you, choosing gets a lot easier

I love ______, but want to try something different…

Giving the shop worker a guide as to what you love to eat will help them find a product for you that will be familiar, but perhaps more interesting. In this situation it is very important for you to be honest – in a mature, adult way. Feel free to say “too salty” or “too stinky”, etc. If you really don’t like a sample they give you, try your best to avoid making little kid “ew”-faces, and kindly say that wasn’t for you. It’s not poison, it’s cheese- and some adorable little old French man or sassy Italian woman is really proud of that product. Respect.

Once you have found your perfect line up, I recommend snapping a picture of the labels with your phone (or if you don’t have the technology, jot it down). I like to stick little labels on the cheeseboard so people know what they are trying, especially if it’s something unusual. If that’s a little too Marthy* for you, having the info in case someone LOVES something so much to go buy it – you’ll look super prepared and thoughtful. Win-win.

 

*Sidenote: “Marthy” – def.  describes an act of décor/entertainment inspired by Martha Stewart. Example: “I love your detailed cheese labels, they’re so Marthy!”

 

The Variety

ballerbudget

So when I was a kid, my mom used to buy those huge trays of cheese cubes at Costco for parties. And let me tell you, I loved it. Mostly because I was 5-10 years old with no interest in cheese that oozed or smelled weird. My cousins loved it too. And we always had SO MUCH LEFT OVER! Which was great for me because at that age I saw fistfuls of generic cheese cubes as a brilliant meal replacement. All of this sounds great but the truth is – no one else was eating it. Mostly because those trays are not a variety at all. Your choices are “really orange ones”, “orange ones”, “yellow ones” or “kinda white ones?” It’s barely cheese, and they sorta taste the same and have identical kid-friendly textures. And you know what else? It’s not cheaper than making a really awesome, customized, interesting cheese plate.

My rule of thumb for a nice selection goes:

One soft, gooey cheese:  I can’t tell you how much I adore a simple Brie or double-cream cheese in the same style. I think it’s timeless, and there are so many kinds to choose from when it comes to intensity and ooey-gooey factor. When selecting this cheese for your table be weary of aroma. I love the really pungent, smelly ones but I know for a fact that most of my friends do not. This is a cheeseboard for everyone, not just me, so I keep the softie on the safe side. I generally save the really smelly stuff for the windowsill by my kitchen sink and cordon it off as a secret VIP section for the smelly-cheese-loving guests.

One cheese made from sheep or goat’s milk: Here is a challenge – buy a goat cheese that isn’t your run of the mill white log. Ever had Humboldt Fog? If not, inquire within. There are so many interesting aged goat cheeses that even the “haters” tend to fall for. Sheep cheese is often a crowd-pleaser because most tend to be salty and simple (Pecorino Romano, Manchego). Sometimes I just buy one in each category because I have no self-control when it comes to choosing just one.

One firm cheese: This one is gonna be for the salt hounds. Really firm cheeses have been aged long enough to see the moisture and sugars widdled down. The end result is a often-crumbly, dry, salty cheese. (Parmesan, Gouda/Beemster, (real, English) Cheddars) Don’t worry about cutting these up neatly, they look really nice cut into rough hunks.

One blue cheese / wild card: We seem pretty divided as a nation on blue cheese. I adore blue cheese- but I am not going to pretend that that has always been the case. It just took the *right* one for me to change my mind. Blue cheese gets pigeonholed into one thing and it actually comes in so many forms. The one that turned it around for me is a blue cheese and brie hybrid called Cambozola. It’s the funk of blue, but in the form of a creamy, buttery, medium-strength cheese. Delicious, spreadable, and not going to override your palate. I recommend trying a bunch  – if you don’t like it  – that’s cool. Look instead to get something completely new, and unlike the other three on the list. I like to ask for something that has a cool rind (“Barely Buzzed” cheese uses ground coffee, “Drunken Goat” cheese is washed with red wine for a bitter edge.)

spendy

 

The Sidekicks

A good cheese shop should have most of these accompaniments, but if not you can usually source most of them at local farmers markets and stands. If you live nowhere near any of these things – you can buy them online too. The benefit of buying at a farmers market is you can sample them first.

Honey: Anthing but the plastic bear. Try to find something local that has the name of the flower on it. That is the good stuff, and worthy of pairing with the cheese you just dropped sorta-big bucks on. You don’t need a big jar, a little goes a long way. Some people are anti-honey on cheese, and that’s okay. A cheeseboard-side debate about it may occur, especially once the wine is flowing.

Jams/Preserves: The label should have 5 ingredients tops, and none of them should be high fructose corn syrup. I highly recommend sourcing these from farms because they use quality fruit, at it’s most delicious ripe state. Fresh or dried figs are delicious, and look really pretty when cut in half and scattered on the cheese board. Pepper Jelly and Quince Paste (aka Membrillo paste) are those weird things you see often and wonder what the heck they’re for. Cheese. They’re for cheese. And they’re crazy delicious.

condiments

 

Don’t forget that the endgame here is to enjoy yourself. Don’t worry too much about what your guests will think of your selection. Chances are, they will just be happy and excited that it’s not a plastic tray of cheese cubes. (If there are in fact kids coming, maybe consider a small bowl of those.)  Also, if they’re really good friends they’ll just be happy to be hanging out with you and will be thankful for the hospitality.

 

Alicia Ekeler-Valle

Tasting Room Manager & CIA Trained Chef