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So you’ve been eyeing those cheese slate collections from Brooklyn Slate Company in the Food52 Shop. Distinctive and dramatic, they have an aesthetic that turns eating cheese a cause for celebration. Naturally, your mind has drifted to the inevitable question: “Which cheeses am I going serve on those beautiful rustic surfaces at my holiday party?” Most of us are enthusiasts when it comes to cheese, but the thought of composing a balanced cheese plate is daunting. How many should I choose? Variety is important, but at what point will my tastebuds get overwhelmed? Can I mix and match different regional varieties? Which cheeses pair well with the wine I’m serving?
To calm our cheese board insecurities, we turned to our friends at Brooklyn’s famed Bedford Cheese Shop. Cheesemonger Christopher Hanawalt shared invaluable insight on how to build the perfect selection of cheeses, reassuring that cheeseboard curation is far from a rigid art. The most successful selections stem from a set of basic guidelines, but ultimately rely on a heavy dose of personal creativity.
-- IMPORTANT TIPS TO KEEP IN MIND --
Variety, variety, variety. “Take advantage of the range of milk types, textures, intensities, colors and shapes that cheese come in to create a cheese board that is both visually interesting and tastes exciting and new.”
Curate by milk type. “A basic approach to creating a good range of cheeses is to get three cheeses of different milk types: a cow’s milk, a sheep’s milk, and a goat’s milk. That is the foundation for creating a great cheese plate. There is nothing more unappealing than a plate of different bries or four different aged goudas sitting on a board. Our tastebuds get bored quickly and easily, and demand to be entertained.”
Consider texture, intensity and visual appearance. “Choose some cheeses that are mild, some cheeses that are stronger, some cheeses that are soft, some cheeses that are harder and more rustic. And since half of good eating is presentation, it's important to get cheeses that simply look different from one another! Cheeses come in a veritable rainbow of hues and all sorts of weird shapes and sizes. Get crazy!”
Consider wine pairings. “For white or sparkling wines, I prefer creamy, buttery, spreadable cheeses, such as bries, or fresh chevres. Whites also pair excellently with blue cheese and more pungent cheeses. The acid of a white wine is a great way to cut the palate-coating creaminess of these cheeses. For red wines, I prefer harder, nuttier, grassier cheeses, such as pecorinos, alpine style cheeses (Comte, Gruyere, Appenzeller, etc.), or cheeses from the Pyrenees. These cheeses are able to stand up to the tannins of a red wine, which produce unique flavors in both the food and beverage. If you do want to do a creamier cheese with a red, I would recommend something earthy, spicy, and barnyard-y. Something that smells like a wet sheep lying on a bale of hay. (You’ll be pleasantly surprised!)
That said, there are definitely no rules when it comes to pairing. You should never be stressed out when it comes to eating good food especially something as special as seasonal, farmstead cheese!”
-- TAKE A CUE FROM THE 'MONGER --
Here are Chris’ seasonal suggestions to help you navigate the stinky terrain during your next visit to the cheese shop:
Pick #1: Soft-ripened, washed rind cheese
- Vacherin Mont D'or (from the Alps)
- Rush Creek Reserve (Upland's Cheese in Wisconsin)
- Epoisses (from Burgundy, France)
Notes: This time of year we tend to get in a lot of beautiful soft ripened, washed rind cheeses that are the product of late autumn milk. These tend to be more pungent, soft, and perfect for scooping onto crusty bread. All of these cheeses come in a round, are designed to be gooey, and can be paired with sweeter white wines or lighter reds. They lend themselves to pickles, jams, salamis, and olives excellently.
Pick #2: Firm goat’s milk cheese
- Caprotto (a goat's milk made in a pecorino style from Italy)
- Garrotxa (an earthy cheese from Spain)
- Firmer cheeses from Haystack Mountain in Colorado, primarily the Queso de Mano or Sunlight.
Notes: Fresh goat cheeses are no longer in season during the winter, as the animals are moved from the outdoor pastures to inside for the winter. These cheeses tend to be lemony, tangy, bright, flowerly, and nutty. Because of their age, both of these cheeses pair well with a variety of wines, beers, and liquors.
Pick # 3: Sheep’s Milk or Blue Cheese
Option A -- Sheep’s Milk Cheese
- Spanish cheeses which are more aged, such as Manchego, Zamarano, or Roncal
- Sheep's milks from the Pyrenees
- French mixed milk Gabietou
OR...if you want something stronger and softer...
Option B -- Blue Cheese
- Colston Bassett Stilton, from England
- Bleu D'Auvergne from France
- Any of the blues from Rogue River Creamery in Oregon
[Photo sources: OpenSky blog, Brooklyn Slate Co., artisanalcheese.com]