Not-for-Profit, Award-Winning Community News and Views for Windham County, Vermont • Since 2006
Food and Drink

Cheese for the holidays

Making an interesting and tasty cheese plate for guests is easier than you think

Although Wendy M. Levy claims her current ’monger status as “on extended sabbatical,” as Cheesemonger For Life she still takes seriously her job of making people feel better about their relationship to cheese.

BRATTLEBORO—Unless you’re a hermit — if you are, I don’t judge you — December is the time of year when most people cram themselves into each others’ homes, demanding food and drinks.

It’s too cold to scream for ice cream, so most hungry guests shift their dairy request from the frozen to the fermented: They want cheese, and lots of it. Thus, if people are coming over, or if you are a guest visiting others, and you want everyone to like you, cheese is your friend.

But say you feel lost in a cheese shop. Where do you even begin?

First, please do not be intimidated by cheese.

Selecting cheese is easy: Pick the ones you like the best. If you only like one cheese, buy a big piece of it. Trust me, enthusiasm is contagious. Your guests will eat more if they know you love it.

If you want to expand your cheese palate, find a cheesemonger and make friends. Tell her what you like, and ask for recommendations for other cheeses. Try things.

p { margin-bottom: 0.08in; }

But we have no full-service cheese counter around here, where all cheeses are cut to order (none are pre-cut) and where a cheesemonger is available at all hours of operation. You can try one of the local co-ops, or the shop in the cheese factory on Route 30, to see if someone can help you. You can also just go to the grocery store, because we’re going to keep this easy and doable.

Let’s use Brattleboro as our home base, and we’re mostly sticking with what you can get at the grocery stores, because we’re going to keep this easy and doable.

We have Vermont cheddar everywhere. I think you can even get it at the gas station. So, buy some of that.

The best option is Cabot Clothbound Cheddar, aged at The Cellars at Jasper Hill. Grafton’s two-year is just snappy enough to draw attention without being too piquant, and the one-year is milder, but not dull, and it melts the best.

Even Cabot’s vacuum-packed bricks will serve you well in a pinch, and if your guests come from outside Vermont they likely won’t have such good cheddar at their grocery stores. You’ll win easy points. Serve with apples, nuts, or berry jams.

Believe it or not, Brattleboro’s Exit 1 grocery store just started carrying Gruyère, and our bigger store at Exit 3 sells six-ounce bricks of Emmentaler. Buy those.

But make sure it’s from Switzerland! Don’t be fooled by the domestic versions. There are U.S.-made Alpine-style cheeses that may have similar names as the authentic varieties, but their flavor is far less pronounced — and I’m trying to be diplomatic here.

Also, you need to pay attention when you buy Gruyère: store employees don’t know how to break down the wheels, and many pieces are about half rind. Don’t let that happen to you. Pick a wedge-shaped cheese and make sure you only get rind on the butt end of the isosceles triangle.

If you’re lucky enough to find any cheeses from Vermont’s Springbrook Farm, their Alpine-style cheeses are among the best in their class made in this country. Flavorful but not aggressive, Reading and Tarentaise are prime examples of what skilled cheesemakers can do with Jersey milk and small-scale production.

Serve Alpine cheeses with that mostarda I told you how to make in last month’s food column. Pickled things work well too.

The big Exit 1 grocery store recently started carrying actual Parmigiano-Reggiano, which almost made me plotz right there at the endcap.

For a serious cheese snob like me, it’s not anything super special: Vacche Rosse it ain’t, and who knows if the milk is spring, summer, winter, or fall, but it’s authentic Parmigiano-Reggiano, it tastes really good, and the price is decent for around here.

Surprise your guests with a wedge of that on a platter, with a little honey for dipping. It’s not just for grating on pasta.

Sometimes the smaller, newer grocery store on Putney Road has interesting cheeses. I’ve seen decent Spanish Manchego there. It won’t be as spectacular as the 1605 Manchego from Essex Street Cheese I used to sell in my old shop, but it’ll taste good.

I have also gotten nice, fresh goat cheese, and some smaller Brie-like cheeses that ripened nicely. Again, don’t expect Brie de Meaux or Rodolphe Le Meunier’s Sainte-Maure de Touraine, but you can find something better than Colby-Jack for your holiday entertaining.

If you feel blue and need a smoke, the Exit 1 supermarket regularly carries Roth-Kase’s Moody Blue. This Wisconsin-made blue, from the Emmi-Roth cheese empire, is smoked over fruitwood.

People seem to love smoked cheese for some reason. I don’t, because I usually find smoked cheese more about the smoke and less about the cheese, but in this case I say go for it. The texture is creamy and pliable, and the blue’s sweet fruitiness balances well with the smoke. It’s pretty gentle. They recommend serving Moody Blue with dark chocolate or maple syrup. I can see that working.

If you serve a cheese from every category I listed, that will make an admirable platter. Cheddar, Alpine, (maybe Manchego or goat), Parmigiano-Reggiano (you can skip it if it’s too pricey), and blue.

Here’s what to avoid, especially if any of your guests expect good cheese: cheese with stuff in it.

Fruit and cheese pair nicely. Fruit in cheese generally means someone is trying to mask a mediocre cheese by tarting it up. Onions and mustard don’t go in cheese; they go with cheese.

Also, that striped English monstrosity with alternating layers of cheddar and blue is a sad gimmick. Just because someone can stack one cheese atop another doesn’t mean they can make a decent cheese — because they can’t.

And now for the boring stuff: How much do I buy, and how do I serve and store the cheese?

Most people don’t want more than 2 ounces or so of cheese total, so start with the number of attendees, multiply by two, divide that number by the number of cheeses you plan to serve, then add a few ounces of each cheese, just in case. So, if you are having eight people over, and you are serving three cheeses, buy six ounces of each. Easy cheesy!

As soon as you get home from shopping, before you think about anything else, get your cheese out of that plastic wrap, dammit! Even if you aren’t serving it until next week, release your cheese from its polyethylene prison and put it in a zip-top food storage bag, or a snap-lid container, or kick it old-school and put the cheese on a plate beneath an upturned bowl.

For service, don’t worry about making everyone an individual cheese plate unless you have too much time on your hands: Find your nicest plate, or a plain-old cutting board, or a clean slab of slate, and plop the unwrapped cheeses right on top.

Don’t pre-cut. Don’t make little cubes. Don’t worry about weird cheese knives from some overpriced tchotchke store. Table knives will do. Maybe a paring knife for the cheddar.

Bread is best. Something with a crust, from a bakery, like a baguette. Sure, you can serve Wonder Bread if your holidays are filled with irony, but then you’re likely just serving Velveeta anyway, so skip this article entirely.

If bread involves too much planning, crackers are acceptable. Pick a plainer variety, like a water cracker.

Finally, what may be the most important aspect of serving cheese: the temperature. Cheese tastes best when it’s sat out for awhile. Give it at least half an hour before serving: longer if you aren’t food-phobic. Remember, just as you want to come in from the cold, so does your cheese.

Like what we do? Help us keep doing it!

We rely on the donations and financial support of our readers to help make The Commons available to all. Please join us today.

What do you think? Leave us a comment

Editor’s note: Our terms of service require you to use your real names. We will remove anonymous or pseudonymous comments that come to our attention. We rely on our readers’ personal integrity to stand behind what they say; please do not write anything to someone that you wouldn’t say to his or her face without your needing to wear a ski mask while saying it. Thanks for doing your part to make your responses forceful, thoughtful, provocative, and civil. We also consider your comments for the letters column in the print newspaper.

Add Comment

* Required information
Enter the word hand backwards.
Captcha Image
Powered by Commentics

Comments (0)

No comments yet. Be the first!

Originally published in The Commons issue #284 (Wednesday, December 10, 2014). This story appeared on page C1.

Related stories

More by Wendy M. Levy