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The Cheese Doesn't Stand Alone

Assembling a Cheese Plate for Entertaining or for a Simple Dessert

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A well-balanced cheese plate is a thing of beauty – it tastes pretty good, too! To create a cheese plate with intoxicating flavors, textures, and surprises, all you need is a bit of knowledge. And while there may be an art to assembling an impressive cheese platter, there are no hard and fast rules about what to include – so it can also be lots of fun.

In the last 20 years, American consumption of natural cheese has risen while consumption of processed cheese has decreased, so we can fairly assume that the American palate has become both healthier and more sophisticated. But many of us who grew up with the basics of cheddar, Monterey Jack and Swiss – and who perhaps even loved those pre-wrapped individual slices of American “cheese product” – still have much to learn about the delights of farmhouse and artisan cheeses, whether from France, Spain, Wisconsin or California.

Step #1 is to find a good local cheese shop and get to know your cheese mongers. They can help enlighten you about different kinds of farmstead, gourmet and artisan cheeses, give you samples to expand your “cheese vocabulary,” and offer tips about how to configure an impressive display.

For starters, a well designed platter should have between three and seven cheeses. As well as contrasting flavors, the assortment should include a series of textures, including creamy through semi-soft, all the way to a dry well-aged cheese if you like.

“Vary the textures and flavors with a progression of young to aged cheeses, mild to bolder flavors,” recommends Jacquelyn Buchanan, Culinary Director at Laura Chenel’s Chèvre. Depending on the size of your group, you may wish to limit the choices to just three or four, but remember to buy a bit more of the most popular selections as they tend to be gobbled up more quickly.

“And always serve cheese at room temperature,” adds Buchanan. Allow hard cheeses a good hour or two to come to temperature. Creamier or fresh cheeses only need a short time, 15 – 30 minutes. Cover the cheese while it comes to room temperature – an inverted bowl or light dishcloth will work – to keep the cheese from drying out.

Accompaniments

A good platter will also include complementary foods such as fruit, baguette or crackers, and condiments. Janne Rasmussen of Cypress Grove Chevre encourages her customers to find flavor combinations that enhance each other, stand up to each other, but do not overwhelm each other.

She recommends serving cheese with fresh fruit, such as apples, pears and grapes; with dried fruit such as apricots and figs; and with interesting and unusual condiments. She loves to pair fresh chevre with dates, or drizzle it with a tiny bit of honey or a sliver of candied orange peel. At the same time, some semi-soft or hard cheeses, such as France’s famous Gruyere de Comté do well with mustard, or toasted nuts. A variety of cheeses will be matched by a range of crackers, from plain to seeded, wheat or rye, and some that might even contain dried fruits.

Flavors of well-aged Vermont or English cheddar tend to the strong side and they are particularly delicious when served with condiments like fig jam, chutney or Branston pickle. English cheeses such as Stilton, Double Gloucester, and Cheshire, Britain’s oldest cheese, are exceptional when paired with a combination of fresh ripe pears, pecans or walnuts, and aged port.

“The flavors should be well matched,” Rasmussen says. “It’s like that country and Western song, ‘I want a man that stands beside me, not in front of or behind me.’ That’s the perfect definition of a great cheese pairing,” she adds.

We think that’s a mighty fine way to explain it.

For more information about Wisconsin and California cheeses, check out the Wisconsin Artisan, Specialty, and Farmstead dairy, or the California Artisan Cheese Guild.

Many thanks to www.laurachenel.com for sharing the beautiful cheese platter photograph shown with this article.

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