When it comes to a great spread of cheese, think quality over quantity. Hastings recommends finding a local cheese shop or specialty market with a nice selection, rather than the local chain grocery, and talking to the cheesemonger there. “These places tend to buy smaller quantities, directly from importers or cheesemakers themselves… not only will the quality often be superior to grocery store brands, but a conversation with a passionate cheesemonger can turn you onto things you never knew about.”
Like Gruyère? Hastings would recommend Challerhocker, a deep, dense, caramel-like cheese from Switzerland.
Let who will be eating the cheese guide your selections. “If there are some adventurous souls amongst your guests, then focus on more exotic options,” suggests Hastings. For a general gathering, however, stick with a medium range of cheeses — “nothing too funky or too middle of the road.” Share your favorites with the important people in your life, then set out to discover new favorites with them. Here are some of Hastings' crowd-pleasing favorites:
Fromager d’Affinois: A decadently rich yet mildly flavored double-cream cow’s milk cheese from the Rhone-Alps. (Hastings likens it to a brie that’s died and gone to heaven — it’s even better the next day on a baguette with a thin slice of good-quality ham.)
Gouda from Holland, and clothbound US Cheddars, like this one from Cabot.
Here’s where there really is no right or wrong. Just have fun. For an all-purpose cheese board for a party, Hastings like to have each a sheep’s milk, cow’s milk, and goat’s milk cheese, as well as a semi-hard and a hard-textured cheese for variety. For a more adventurous crowd, pick a cheese made from different milks all from the same region, such as Italy, or choose a specific kind of milk, like goat’s milk cheeses of varying consistencies from all over.
For a party, Hastings finds one ounce of cheese per person is plenty. “I’d actually prefer to run out of a good thing and leave people wanting more than having too much leftover.” He typically serves no more than four or five cheeses at a party, six at most, so the unique qualities of each cheese aren’t lost. Have a wheel of something prized and rare? For Hastings, that’s reason alone to throw a party!
There is no right or wrong when serving cheese, but to optimize the flavor, Hastings offers some simple rules of thumb to follow. First, bring the cheese to room temperature before serving, a good 15 minutes before guests arrive.
Second, have a different knife for each cheese so as to not muddy the flavors. “Old butter knives (or new ones like these) are fun,” says Hastings, “and I like the organic feel of the olive wood spreaders. Special knife sets, like this one from Laguiole, are fine, but I prefer the simple, home cutlery feel.” His one exception? “I do have a weakness for Parmesan knives.”
Let the cheese shine and keep things simple. Hastings prefers the monochromatic feel of cheese on a good piece of wood or a slab of old stone, like the boards from Brooklyn Slate Company or marble. The cheese is a work of art in and of itself. Perhaps a strategically placed sprig of fresh herbs or an edible flower for a bit of contrast, or a wrapping of salty speck for flavor and color, but nothing else.
“I like to serve cheese in as pure a state as possible,” says Hastings. Whole wedges, rather than slices, is the way to go for both aesthetics and flavor. People can take as little or as much as they’d like. And for cheeses like Parmigiano-Reggiano, serve a pile of walnut-sized shards along with the rind. “Cheese is so beautiful,” adds Hastings, “and those rinds can add some real drama to your display.”
“I love bread and cheese, if good bread is available,” says Hastings. (Try Zingerman's French Mountain Bread.) But for a party, crackers and lighter biscuits are more ideal, especially if a meal is to be served later. While there are some fun flavor combinations to be had, Hastings recommends, as a general rule of thumb, avoiding flavored crackers that might compete with the cheese.
The light Bremner Wafers are fantastic with so many cheeses, as are Carr’s Water Crackers, and thicker biscuits like Effie’s Oat or Nutcakes are great with aged Cheddars or sharp cheeses. Just stack the crackers up like poker chips for an unusual yet user-friendly display.
Remember not to mask the flavor of the cheeses served but choose things that enhance their characteristics. Hastings likes cubes of Rutherford & Meyer's quince paste along with a wedge of Roncal, or a scoop of a spicy-sweet mostarda di Cremona with taleggio. Or serve a single floral honey, like this elderflower one from Ames Farms, slightly warm with a pungent blue cheese like the one from Oregon’s Rogue River Creamery. FormaggioKitchen.com is one of his favorite go-to online sources for cheese accompaniments.
After a cheese has been left out for a couple of hours at a party, Hastings suggests assessing each to see what its destiny should be.
Harder cheeses can be wrapped in waxed paper and then placed in a Ziploc bag. Fresher, more delicate cheeses need a closer look, but can be used in a simple baked pasta for dinner, as the prize ingredient in an omelette or sandwich, or even as an after-school snack with a piece of fruit. And hold onto that rind of Parmigiano-Reggiano. Hastings likes adding them to soups, slow-cooked beans, even meat stews for a wonderful Parmigiano flavor (it can even reduce the amount of salt needed).