When inviting friends over, hosts and hostesses often put out a couple of cheeses to go with pre-dinner drinks. It’s easy to assemble, with no cooking required, and everyone loves cheese. But, many of us panic when choosing what kinds of cheese to serve—and what to pair them with.
To help us navigate the world of cheese, we called upon Max McCalman, the Fromager at Artisanal in New York City, the Dean of Curriculum at the Artisanal Cheese Center, and also the author of “The Cheese Plate,” “Cheese, a Connoisseur's Guide to the World's Best,” and “Mastering Cheese.” He shares some easy-to-remember tips to keep in mind the next time you’re standing at the cheese case wondering what to buy.
What to choose?
Max recommends that you offer at least three different cheeses, perhaps one goat, one sheep and one cow cheese. Adding a thematic element can be fun: all Italian, all French, or all U.S. cheeses, for example. Limiting your selections to only one animal type, such as all goat, may lead to disappointment.
Soft or firm?
Soft cheeses are very popular, but can be a little messy—trying to save a soft cheese after a party is like trying to put toothpaste back into its tube. For the price-conscious, softer cheeses also tend to be more of the “luxury” types, and thus more expensive.
A firmer cheese is easier to re-wrap and store, should you have any left-overs. As well, the firmer cheeses pair more successfully with a broader range of wines and other beverages than do the softer ones… but that is not to say that there aren't wonderful marriages-made-in-heaven with some of the soft cheeses—they are simply less frequent.
How much to purchase?
A good rule of thumb is to allow at least one ounce of each cheese for each person. If you offer more than three kinds of cheese, maybe offer a smaller portion size. Max recommends the more varieties you have, the better—this way you have a better chance of satisfying all tastes, or eliciting more of those “gastronomic thrills.”
Presentation is key!
Many people find it helpful to have little signs with the names of the cheeses placed near or stuck into the cheeses, like name tags. This way, if you happen to find one that you love, you can know what it was. Along with the name, you might include the animal type and the provenance.
Max recommends displaying the cheeses on a wooden cutting board or marble surface, with room for cutting, and for garnishes and crackers. It’s not necessary to have a cheese knife, but whichever knives you choose, make sure that they are sharp!
No cheese plate is complete without accompaniments, and the options are endless. You can choose savory items, like nuts or olives. Often people opt for dried or fresh fruits, honey, quince, jams, chutneys, even the default grapes. These sweeter garnishes pair well with saltier cheeses.
What if I want to serve cheese in lieu of dessert?
If the cheese plate is served more formally, like at the end of a meal, each cheese should be separate from the others, and situated in a progression from mild to strong. Still unsure which cheese is more pungent? Artisanal's CheeseClock pairing tool will help determine which cheeses should be served first, and which ones should be served last.