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Food and Drink

Cheese for the raving hordes

A practical field guide to providing cheese for others

Wendy M. Levy will pretty much show up to any party where cheese is promised, and if cheese isn’t being offered, she’ll bring some. She also owns Brattleboro Cheese at 39 Main Street in downtown Brattleboro.

BRATTLEBORO—I hate to break the news to you, kid, but summer is done. It’s September. Back from vacation, back to school, time to get some work done, blah, blah, blah.

The good news is, most days it’s cool out enough to eat again, and since your friends are back from their adventures, maybe you want to have some people over.

And if you’re having people over, you better have some cheese, or else they might not take you seriously.

Or perhaps you are the one who is going over to someone’s house and you want to ensure you’ll be invited back. You need to know only one word: “cheese.”

But how do you choose the right cheese? How many cheeses should you choose? And how much of each cheese do you need? Oh, the anxiety!

* * *

You can pick just one cheese if you’d like. Let’s start there.

When choosing cheese for a group, large or small, and you are uncertain of everyone’s taste or there is a mix of cheese novices and connoisseurs, a good idea is to select a cheese that is interesting but not scary.

Even though we love them dearly, stay away from blues, strong washed-rinds, and most goats. You know some party-pooper is going to turn up his nose and say, “Ehh, I don’t like [name of cheese you brought],” and guests who do like that cheese might feel uncomfortable suffering the judgment of the sole naysayer, even though they then will get a larger portion of the offending cheese.

No, to make everyone comfortable and happy, it’s a good idea to choose something special and innocuous.

One of the best party cheeses is Ossau-Iraty (full name: Ossau-Iraty-Pyrénées-Brebis AOC), an aged-sheep’s-milk cheese from the Basque region of the French Pyrénées. It is sweet, savory, just a little salty, robust, and subtly sheepy without being strong.

As this cheese ages, the flavors balance, and sometimes it gets a little lactic, like crème fraîche. It’s hard to find someone who doesn’t enjoy this cheese — even children.

There are many makers of Ossau-Iraty, but your best bet is to find a fermier, or farmstead, version, made of unpasteurized milk and aged at least six months, like Vallée d’Aspe.

It’s best served simply: on its own, or with some good, rustic bread or whole-grain crackers, especially oat biscuits. It also pairs beautifully with cherry preserves.

* * *

If you’d rather serve more than one cheese, you have a few easy options. These tips might help you feel far less overwhelmed at a cheese shop, where there seem to be just too many choices.

How will you ever know where to begin? Begin with three.

Pick a soft cheese, a medium cheese (medium in texture and strength), and a stronger cheese, like a blue or a washed-rind. You can stick with all one animal (cheese from the milk of cow, goat, sheep) or mix it up.

Here’s a sample selection: Woodcock Farm’s Summer Snow (soft-ripened sheep cheese, sort of like sheep brie), Boston Post Road Dairy’s Tres Bonne (young gouda-style cheese made with goats’ milk), and Jasper Hill’s Bayley-Hazen Blue (fudgy, minerally, gently pungent cows’-milk blue).

Not only did we cover all three major dairy animals and include three different textures and styles of cheese, but we also chose all Vermont cheeses, thus maintaining one consistent theme.

You might also choose three cheeses in the same category to allow guests to experience the vast differences in what should be similar cheeses.

For example, so much of a cheese’s personality is determined by what animal’s milk is used to make the cheese. Try three different goudas: a cow, and sheep, and a goat.

Or, for an even more remarkable study, serve three traditional clothbound cheddars. Everyone loves cheddar, but not everyone has had English-style farmhouse cheddar. Vermont’s Cabot Clothbound Cheddar, aged by Jasper Hill for a minimum of 10 months, is a good place to start.

Next to it on the cheese board, put a wedge of Montgomery’s Cheddar from cheddar’s ancestral home, Somerset, England; it’s considered by many cheese professionals to be one of the best in the world.

For Cheese Number Three, choose Scotland’s Isle of Mull Cheddar, made on the island of the same name. It’s likely the strongest cheddar that you and your guests have had, and while it can be considered “sharp,” it’s not overly acidic like some industrial, so-called “super-sharp” cheddars.

All three are made using pretty much the same recipe, but the slight variation in starter cultures, the aesthetics of the respective cheesemakers, and the terroir of the individual cheeses contribute to remarkable differences in three cheeses that are still very easy to identify as “cheddar.”

* * *

In the actual serving of the cheese, you have options. Much of it depends on the setting and format of your event.

Will it be casual, where many different foods are set out for guests to “graze”? Then simply put your cheeses on a plate, slate, or board with a knife for each. If you are serving more than one, display them in order of strength, from left to right, mildest to strongest.

If your party is an informal sit-down meal, you can still serve the cheese this way, but put the plate in the center of the table so people may take cheese as they wish.

It’s best, either way, to serve the piece of cheese in its entirety: a wedge, a big slice, a small wheel. Don’t pre-slice or cube the cheese; it’ll dry out too quickly. Simply provide a knife for your guests.

You can also forget about all those goofy gadgets. Save your money to buy a nicer, bigger piece of cheese. A small paring knife, or sturdy table and butter knife, will do the trick.

* * *

Formal dinners call for individual cheese plates. American service tends to treat cheese as an appetizer, served before the main meal, but the European style dictates cheese to be served just prior to dessert, or as dessert itself.

Regardless of when the cheese plates come out, they should be arranged in order of strength, mildest to strongest.

If the cheeses are served on a circular plate, the mildest should be at the six-o’clock position, with the other cheeses going around in a clockwise fashion, ending with the strongest. If the cheeses are served in a linear fashion, again, mildest to strongest, left to right.

When making individual cheese plates, you can include up to six cheeses, but any more than that can be overwhelming.

For such larger plates, in addition to arranging in order of strength and choosing a variety of cheeses based on different styles and animal milks, also keep an eye out for shapes, colors, and textures.

It won’t be easy, since most cheeses worth eating are in the color spectrum ranging from pale white to light brown sugar, but things like ash veins, paprika-rubbed rinds, and blue cheeses add visual interest and variety in flavors.

Avoid gimmicky cheeses, such as cheeses with fruit embedded in them, as they will likely overwhelm the other cheeses.

(This is a good rule of thumb in general: a well-made cheese doesn’t need a bunch of junk added to it. This practice usually occurs when a particular cheese isn’t good enough to stand on its own. A much better option is to enjoy fruit, vegetables, nuts, etc., alongside a well-made cheese, rather than smooshed into it.)

* * *

So how much cheese do you need? The answer depends mainly not on how you are serving the cheese — cut-your-own or arranged on a fancy, individual cheese plate — but on what else is being served.

If the cheese is part of a cocktail-hour array, and other snack-type foods are being served, most people are going to want 2 to 3 ounces of cheese total, not 2 to 3 ounces per cheese. (If you are having lighter or fewer other foods, count on three ounces; if the food is plentiful or heavier, 2 ounces per person will suffice.)

Thus, if you are serving one cheese as an hors d’oeuvre with other foods, and 10 people will come over, you will want between 20 and30 ounces of that one cheese.

If you are serving three cheeses to 10 people, you will want between 7 and 10 ounces of each cheese, but also keep in mind how paltry a 7-ounce piece of cheese will look on a cutting board.

It’s best to have at least a half pound piece of each cheese on the slate and either save the leftovers for tomorrow morning’s omelet or send the remainder home with a grateful guest.

* * *

One important consideration to keep in mind regarding serving cheese — and this is something many people do not realize, but will make a huge difference in the way your guests experience your cheese service — is to always serve cheese at room temperature.

Don’t be afraid to take your cheese out of the refrigerator at least an hour before service. Unless you live in the Gobi Desert and you have no air conditioning, it’s highly unlikely your cheese will suffer. On the contrary: the cheese will taste much better and fuller after having been left to temper.

This rule goes for all cheeses, from the freshest fresh mozzarella to the oldest, hardest Parmigiano-Reggiano. Plus, for the firmer cheeses, having them achieve room temperature will make it easier to cut into them.

* * *

Now that you have the basics down, go forth and enjoy. Experiment.

Serve your cheese with fruits, especially stone fruits, apples, pears, and berries. Serve your cheese with raw or dry-roasted unsalted nuts, or candied or glazed nuts. (Salted nuts aren’t recommended because the cheese alone tends to be salty enough.)

Make a nice platter of fresh, grilled, or roasted vegetables to serve alongside cheese, or choose roasted or grilled meats. Experiment with fruit preserves, honey, or balsamic vinegar and reductions. Instead of crackers, try bread or sweeter biscuits, like those made of oats.

Or, if all this pairing drives you bananas, jettison all the extras and just put out the cheese on some flat, clean surface, with a knife.

There: happy guests.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #219 (Wednesday, September 4, 2013).

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