How to Assemble a Cheese Plate – A Biased Perspective
I put this together for a tasting we held at Bouffe, Libby Bonahoom's gourmet shop in Lincoln Square, Chicago.
Cheese plates are simpler to put together than most people assume. By following a few simple rules, you too can be a cheese plate artist and wow family and friends at your next dinner party or soirée.
Rule #1: Find yourself a reliable Cheesemonger
Not all cheesemongers and cheese shops are created equal! Is the cheese pre-wrapped, or is it cut to order for you? Does the cheesemonger let you taste the cheese before you buy? Is the cheese shop busy, does the cheese inventory turn over frequently? You need to answer these questions when you walk in to a cheese shop before you consider buying. After all, good cheese isn’t cheap: it will cost you anywhere between $9/lb and $30/lb, depending on method of production, country of origin, and scarcity. If you are going to shell out that kind of dough, make sure the cheese is treated well and is at its peak (à point, in French) before you buy.
Rule #2: Don’t go shopping without a game plan
There is nothing worse than facing a case of hundreds of cheeses and not knowing where to start. Before you start picking cheeses out at random, know what you want. How many cheeses will you serve? Will it be served as a course or as an hors d’oeuvre? You will need much less cheese – 1 oz-1.5 oz per person of each type – if you are going to serve cheese as a dessert course. If it is an appetizer, served buffet style, consider your guests and their appetites.
Rule #3: It is all about odd numbers
Cheese plates should have an odd number of cheeses – 3, 5, 7, etc – rather than even. This is my rule – I suppose you could serve 4 or 6 if you liked but the balance of odd numbers is visually pleasing and is reflected in other arts, particularly Ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arrangement.
Rule #4: If you are going to serve a cheese plate, have a theme
Actually, there is no hard and fast rule about a theme, but it sure makes it easier for cheese novices to choose from the dozens, if not hundreds, of cheeses available at the cheese counter. Country, milk type, texture, producer, cheese type, rind, matching a wine you are serving – all of these are potential themes for a plate. Alternately, a non-theme will work too. Picking one cheese each from the category of milk types –sheep, goat, cow – can create a cheese plate with textural, flavor, and visual variety. If you are totally lost, ask your friendly cheesemonger for advice – that’s what they are there for!
Rule #5: Arrange your cheeses mildest to strongest if you are serving cheese as a course
Arrange your cheeses with your mildest cheese at twelve o’clock on the plate, and place the rest of the cheeses – mildest to strongest – clockwise, down and around. Your mildest cheese will end up next to your strongest cheese, if you have a sizable cheese plate. Blues are almost always the strongest cheeses on the plate, followed by washed rind cheeses. Oh yeah, and in the US, it doesn’t matter when you serve cheese, as long as you enjoy it!
Rule #6: Accompaniments are awfully fun
Other foods can intensify and even change the flavor of cheese. Serve cheeses with a variety of accompaniments like toasted nuts, quince paste (membrillo), slices of pear or apple, dried fruits, wine jelly, Italian mostarda, fig cake, or date cake (and any number of other treats available today). Crackers are good if they are to be used as a palate cleanser, but bread is far more interesting as a vehicle for cheese. Try a bread with nuts and fruits, like a pecan-raisin loaf or cranberry-walnut bread.
Rule #7: Water is nice, but wine is finer…but if you are going to do blue, go Port or….
If you are serving cheese at the end of the meal, the last wine you serve with the entrée can be served with dessert if you don’t want to fuss too much. You can also choose a wine to pair with your cheese course, if you really want to create a dazzler (ask your cheesemonger for advice if you have a broad range of cheeses). With strong blues, nothing beats dessert wines like Port, TawnyPort, Muscat, late harvest Zin, Sauternes, etc. Milder cheeses can be overwhelmed by syrupy dessert wines, so avoid them if you are not serving strong cheeses.
Rule #8: Enjoy!
Relax and enjoy. Cheese courses should be fun and eye-opening. Don’t stress. If you don’t want to do the work, your cheesemonger will be more than happy to help you out.
Here are a few of my favorite mail order resources for great cheese in the US:
Murray's Cheese - 50 years and going strong! They have an aging cave that competes with the best of 'em...and their direct import program is great!
Zingerman's - What can I say? A relatively limited selection of great cheeses, aged well
Formaggio Kitchen - One of the shops that started it all. Expensive and worth it
igourmet.com - They have it all. One stop shopping, and reasonable prices. Can't vouch for the quality, but they certainly have quantity.
esperya.com - If it is Italian and artisan, you will find it here.