Be Cultured: Let’s Eat Cheese

Put down the Velveeta. Step away from the Kraft singles.

Cheese fraud is a serious crime against your palate, health, and overall well-being.You haven’t been eating real cheese, and it is long past time you were introduced to the good stuff via a cheese plate. It’s possible to rehabilitate and reintroduce yourself to society as a bonafide cheese connoisseur by following a few enlightening cheese suggestions (nay, commandments of biblical proportions).

A cheese plate is a perfect way to reintroduce cheese (the good stuff) to yourself and loved ones. Cheese is impressive–each piece (of real cheese) goes through an aging process, which run the gamut from days, to months, to years. Serving a cheese plate is your way of saying “I know things” while making yourself seem cultured, creative, and clever. Because, let’s face it, once your guests try a pairing of a vintage gouda with a sweet caramel sauce, you’re bound to be a hero.

Phase One: The Basics

Let’s say you’re having a small dinner rendezvous with friends. You need to figure out how many people you’re feeding, and when you’re going to bring on the cheese.

  • Suggestions vary, and only you know your crowd, but keep it to around 3-4 oz of cheese per person
  • Decide if this is a pre-dinner cheese course or an after-dinner treat
    • Pre-dinner begs for lighter and savory options, like an herb coated goat cheese
    • Post-dinner is the perfect time for sweet, super-rich and creamy cheeses, like a triple crème goat’s milk brie

Once you know when you’re serving, and who you’re feeding, it’s time to think about what cheeses you’re going to purchase. Your best source is a knowledgeable and local cheese-monger. They can tell you what’s new and exciting, or suggest standby classics that will be an instant hit. A good cheesemonger will also let you sample the cheese, which means you know exactly what you’re getting. Lastly, ask the cheesemonger to slice your wedge of cheese fresh from off the block. This will ensure you get a perfectly ripe (aka not stale) piece of cheese.

Nonetheless, you are an adult (more or less) and can totally manage this all on your own even if you’re lacking a cheesemonger.

Phase Two: Picking Cheese

  • Pick a theme: U.S. farmstead cheeses? Global cheeses? French or Spanish or Italian Cheese? All cow’s milk or all blue cheese? It’s up to you, but having a plan can be helpful as a guiding principal. However, if you find a cheese that makes you especially happy, there’s nothing stopping you from including it, even if it breaks the theme’s pattern.
  • Try to include a variety of textures and flavors, unless doing a very specific plate that is meant to showcase subtle differences between blues or goat’s milk cheese (not recommended for beginners…)
  • Aim for no less than three cheeses and usually, no more than five
  • Pick from the four main categories of cheese
    • Aged–ie: aged cheddar
    • Soft–ie: camembert
    • Firm–ie:manchego
    • Blue–ie: stilton
  • You can also mix up your cheese selection by the type of milk used
    • Goat
      • IE: the Chabichou du Poitou–a fudgy textured French standout that’s bright with a hint of lemon
    • Cow
      • IE: A comté– similar to Gruyère, is a firm French cheese that has a rich and buttery feel and creamy, nutty taste
    • Sheep
      • IE: The Pecorino Tartufo Riserva–a truffled enriched, aged, Italian cheese that boasts a dense but creamy texture

Cheese plate at Parc

Phase Three: Finding Special Cheeses

The cheese below are exceptional offerings from all over the world. If you’re able to get your hands on any of them, then you are in for a treat.

Note: Shellbark Hollow Farms turn out some exceptional cheese offerings. Their website, found here, is the best resource on where to find and purchase their wares. In particular, the “Sharp 2” is noteworthy.

  • Scharfe Maxx: A cow’s milk cheese from Switzerland. This one is aged 365 days and has a distinct sharp and tangy taste, making it ideal for salty or spicy pairings
  • Vintage Gouda: From Holland, this cow’s milk cheese is a stunner that will appeal to any taste. Aged anywhere from three to five years, it has a subtle sweetness and crumbly texture with a dark amber color.
  • Epoisses de Bourgogne: a cow’s milk cheese by Jacques Hennart from the village Époisses, France. It’s frequently called the most interesting of French cheeses because it has a salty, tangy, sweet and creamy mix of flavors and is exceedingly soft. Napoleon, interestingly enough, was a fan of this particular cheese.
  • Quadrello di Bufala: From the Bergamo province in Italy, made from Buffalo milk (changing it up!. It’s a sweet-but-mild and exceedingly rich mozzarella style cheese.
  • Gorgonzola Dolce: A cow’s milk cheese from Italy, this blue is very soft and spreadable and offers a sweeter, milder, blue cheese flavor that’s ideal for anyone unsure about blue cheese.
  • Pecorino Toscano: a goat’s milk cheese produced in Tuscany. It’s a hard cheese with a delicate flavor that pairs equally well with salty or sweet accompaniments.
  • Capricho de Cabra: A goat’s milk cheese from Spain that’s super flavorful and very creamy
  • Barely Buzzed: a unique espresso and lavender rubbed cheese from Jersey cow milk, made in Utah. It’s a personal favorite and has caramel and butterscotch notes with a full-bodied and creamy texture.
  • Bathed In Victory: A cow’s milk cheese made in Pennsylvania by Doe Run Farm. It’s a buttery and slightly nutty cheese that is made with a beer wash.
  • Purple Haze: this nearly sounds like a strain of something a bit more potent, but it’s a goat cheese from California (that part isn’t a surprise, right?). The cheese is made with a mix of lavender and wild fennel pollen, so it has a distinct taste that’s utterly delicious.

Phase Four: Accompaniments 

The cheese plate is only half finished by the time you purchase all the cheese. You can’t just stick it on a plate and call it a day! That’s some basic cheese nonsense. What’s missing are accompaniments. In order to take your cheese-on-a-plate to cheese plate mecca, you need to provide accessories to enhance each piece of cheese, and adorn the plate in question.

Your options are as diverse and interesting as the cheese market itself.

  • Bread: you need carbs with cheese, because this plate isn’t about being coy. Nonetheless, this is the simplest addition to any cheese plate.
    • Fresh baguettes (mild enough to go with everything without overshadowing any of the cheeses)
    • Different kinds of crusty bread, sliced into small serving pieces
    • Crackers: they come in a variety of flavors and shapes so you can choose plain multigrain ones, flavored offerings like rosemary, or super crispy-seeded options to mix with a nuttier or sweeter cheese to mix it up
  • Fruit/Vegetables: naturally, you’ll want to pick accordingly, depending on when you serve the cheese plate. Nonetheless, make sure fruit offerings are perfectly ripe.
    • Artichoke hearts, roasted red peppers, olives, tomatoes
    • Peaches, pears, berries, nectarines need to be perfectly ripe!
    • Apples and grapes are a safe option year-round for finding a good, sweet, addition to the cheese
  • Jams, Preserves, and Pastes: There are savory and sweet jams aplenty that make an ideal pairing to cheese + bread and ultimately elevate the experience.
    • Apple, Apricot, Blackberry, Black Currant, Fig, Huckleberry and more are all perfect jams to accompany a dessert cheese plate
    • Bacon, onion, roasted red peppers, roasted garlic, or tomato jams are all game changers on a pre-dinner cheese plate.
    • Chutney, mostarda, spicy mustards, and quince paste are ideal savory accompaniments.
  • Nuts and bolts: Nuts are a great way to enhance cheese, and look beautiful scattered on the plate.
    • Walnuts, peanuts, pecans, pistachios, almonds
    • Marcona almonds are the best option, and are equally at home with sweet and savory options alike. Check our Trader Joes’s rosemary flavored marcona almonds for an addictive addition.
  • Dried Fruits: since it’s difficult to find fresh fruit that’s perfectly ripe year-round (that’s how nature works folks), dried fruit makes a perfect accompaniment.
    • Raisins, dates, apricots, cherries, apples
    • Medjool dates are a game changer
  • Honey and sweets:  Dessert isn’t the same without sugar
    • Different kinds of honey means different flavors on a cheese plate
      • Clover honey + blue cheese
      • Chestnut and Buckwheat honey + grueyere or Parmigiano reggiano
      • Orange blossom honey + soft cheeses, like brie or goats milk
    • Caramel mixed with salty or nutty cheeses (Or anything, really) is exceptional. Pairing it with an aged gouda will blow your mind.
  • Cured Meats: Ideal for a pre-dinner plate, different meats can add a nice touch to a cheese arrangement
    • Prosciutto, salamis, chorizo

Phase Five: Finishing Touches

Congratulations on nearly completing one of the best things you’ll ever eat. There are just a few important suggestions to remember when you’re making the final move from jumbled ingredients to full presentation.

  • Remove the cheese from the fridge at least an hour before serving. Cheese shouldn’t be served cold and hard, it needs time to soften and breathe prior to eating.
  • Spread the spread: make sure you’re using a plate or board big enough to sufficiently accommodate all the cheese and accessories. If your cheese is arranged too close together, people will inevitably bump into other cheeses while slicing.
  • Keep pungent cheeses farther apart from other pungent cheeses
  • Provide a knife for each individual piece of cheese
  • Put accompaniments intended for specific cheeses next to that cheese
  • Label the cheese! People deserve to know what you’re serving them, so make sure each cheese (and any information about it you’d care to share) is clearly labeled.
  • White wine pairs best with cheese. The acidity doesn’t overpower the cheese like a red wine does. A great cheese can elevate an OK wine, but a crappy cheese can ruin a great bottle of wine. Invest wisely!

Once you find the good stuff, I doubt you’ll ever go back to your pseudo-cheese ways. Cheese plates are a gateway drug into a whole new way of cheesing, steeped in history and culture from all over the world!

PS: If you’re ever in Philadelphia, visit a cheese expert’s restaurant and shop at Taulula’s Daily. Aimee Olexy is a cheese genius. Cheenius?