A medley of flavors, textures, and colors
Maybe it’s the rich creaminess or the salty nuttiness, the texture and aroma—there’s something about cheese that’s terribly appealing. When paired with the perfect sweet or savory side, the flavors of unique cheeses take on a life of their own.
There’s an art to creating a memorable cheese board. I love the rustic look and taste of cheeses arranged on a plank of wood or a slate or marble board; wedges and hunks of hard cheeses and rounds of soft cheeses spread out with assorted fruits, savory bites, olives, nuts, spreads and tapenades, slices of crusty bread and wafer-thin crackers.
From pungent and earthy to salty and dry, cheese comes in so many varieties that sometimes the hardest part is deciding which cheeses to serve. Make selecting cheese and the perfect foods to complement them an adventure.
A medley of flavors, textures, and colors
I like to create two cheese boards when serving a group of eight or more. It makes an impressive presentation and keeps flavors separate. I use a slate board for soft cheeses like brie, camembert, and soft goat cheeses and a wooden board for hard cheeses like gouda, aged cheddar, and gruyère. I also prefer to select cheeses from different regions; those that differ in appearance from one to another; and a balanced mix of cow, goat, and sheep cheeses, when available.
Write the name of each cheese in chalk directly on a slate board so your guests know what’s being served. Prepare handwritten tags or digitally drawn labels for a wooden board to add a touch of elegance to your table.
Selecting hard cheeses
Go to your local grocer for a tasting prior to purchasing cheeses for your next event. I prefer hard cheeses so I start by sampling a couple of cheddars. I buy organic cheese whenever possible. The selection may not be as extensive. I might find only one or two organic cheeses that have the flavor or texture I’m looking for.
I start with aged Irish and English cheddars. Cathy Gaffney, vice president for specialty cheeses, deli, and kosher deli at Wegmans, suggests their twenty-six-month aged Intense Cheddar, and she’s right, it’s delicious.
After cheddar, it’s on to gouda. Beemster medium gouda from Holland is a real winner, made with milk from cows fed in an area below sea level that’s rich in blue clay. For a gruyère, Le Gruyère, from Switzerland, is next, aged ten to twelve months; it’s a pale-yellow wedge that’s intense, complex, with slight crystallization, rich and dry at the same time.
For a well-developed sheep cheese, I like El Trigal Manchego from Spain for its salty, dry, and crumbly texture. A bite-sized wedge of this off-white, flavorful, tangy cheese rounds out a hard cheese selection.
Other options are a hunk of pecorino romano—Wegmans has an organic one from Italy—or a parmesan like their Parmigiano Reggiano, also organic and from Italy and aged eighteen to twenty-four months. A blue cheese like a creamy, semi-hard, roquefort—Societe Roquefort from France is good—or a pungent blue stilton from England are other good choices.
Selecting soft cheeses
Soft cheeses can be challenging for me. Sometimes they’re too pungent for my taste. Because no cheese board is complete without them, rather than pick soft cheeses myself, I rely on the advice of a cheese specialist.
Gaffney offered her suggestions, which I tried and enjoyed. She suggests starting with a cave-ripened Triple Créme Brie from Marin French Cheese Company that’s a cow’s milk cheese with a bright white rind. It’s soft, smooth, and buttery. Next, I tried Holiday in Italy, a cave-ripened cheese with a rind washed in a mixture of brine and brandy. It’s flavorful plus the burnt orange color of Holiday in Italy is a colorful addition to the board.
Next, I tried Ashbrook, a semisoft artisan-made American cheese from Spring Brook Farm in Vermont. It’s a take-off on a traditional French cheese called Morbier. Ashbrook has a streak of vegetable ash running through the center of a vanilla-colored wedge.
For a more intensely flavored soft cheese, Gaffney recommends Oro Cremoso, a soft-ripened cheese from from Pellegio, Italy, hand-washed with procsecco.
I also like to include a soft Vermont goat cheese with an herb coating because it pairs so well with fruit. Try a good ash-ripened goat cheese that’s smooth and creamy with a bit of crumble.
It’s fun to pair cheeses with other foods from the same region or country of origin: a dry-cured Serrano ham from Spain with Manchego or marinated Cerignola olives with Pecorino Romano.
Bill Dell, category merchant of specialty kosher and entertaining at Wegmans, suggests a selection of charcuterie meats to pair with hard cheese. He likes a mild or hot Soppresatta, a type of salami that’s soft—almost silky—with a high fat content. Dell also recommends Finocchiona, a dry salami flavored with fennel originally from southern Tuscany. My personal favorite is Columbus brand Finocchiona, which is most like the salami served in antipasto when I was a kid. I also love to pair Prosciutto, an Italian dry-cured ham, with cheese but only with milder, soft cheeses like mozzarella.
Meats will sweat in hot temperatures. If you’re serving cured meats with cheeses, serve meat in a room no warner than seventy degrees. If entertaining outdoors, bring meats out as your guests arrive.
Gaffney also suggest sweety drop peppers, sweet and spicy peppers from Peru, or peppadew, a South African pepper, as complements to hard cheeses.
Olives are another great accompaniment to hard cheese: a buttery Greek black olive, Nicoise-Coquillo olives from France, or Black Cerignola from Italy, paired with a cheese from the same region. Gaffney suggests Castelvetrano olives for their buttery finish as a superb pairing for hard cheeses.
Nothing pairs better with soft cheeses than fruit. Apples, pears, grapes, or melon often accompany cheese for their natural sweetness. A new trend for sweet pairing is fresh figs. Wegmans offers delicious Pajarero figs and a fig cake with almonds that works well with a creamy, soft cheese.
Sweet nuts like Marcona almonds or caramelized walnuts or cashews—which can be spiced or candied—make a nice addition as well.
Almonds dusted with cocoa or glazed or caramelized pecans give guests a sweet bite after a pungent or salty cheese. A cranberry, currant, and walnut topping on a round of Brie will please the crowd.
Tapenades and spreads
Some people like to pair cheese with spreads or tapenades. Topping a wedge of hard cheese on a rustic cracker with an olive or sun-dried tomato tapenade is a flavorful bite. A fig, berry, or tart cherry spread atop a soft cheese is a novel way to enjoy a creamy mouthful.
Breads and crackers
Some people prefer the taste of cheese by itself. A water cracker works best for purists who prefer a cracker that serves simply as a surface there to support a slice of cheese.
I like to pair crackers and breads with cheese. If a cheese is rustic or earthy, I want a crusty bread with tooth. A goat cheese requires a cracker with a hint of sweetness or an herbed cracker. The art is in combining flavors and in how foods are presented.
Gaffney and Dell like to complement cheese with crostini: a baguette that’s sliced, seasoned, and toasted into a thin crisp.
Assembling a cheese board
Prepare your boards an hour or so before your guests arrive. Arrange the board from mild to intense. If you can display cheese like a seventeenth century still-life painting with fruit and nuts artfully placed on a fruitwood or rustic slate board, your guests will remember you as a talented host.
Consider the shape of each wedge or wheel of cheese, the color of each cheese, the texture, and color of each rind. Think of fruit as jewelry surrounding cheese and arrange it around the cheeses as adornment.
Spreads and tapenades can be nearby with small, silver or wooden serving spoons. Baskets or plates of bread and crackers should be to the side of each cheese board, plates and napkins within easy reach yet out of the way.
A separate knife for each cheese works best. Soft cheeses need a thin blade or a knife with holes cut into the blade. Hard cheeses will require a blade that can cut through the rind. For cheeses that are very hard, like a hunk of Parmesan, a spade will chip at the cheese.
Plan an afternoon or evening that your guests will delight in as they discover the tastes and textures of cheese and the perfect pairings for this robust and flavorful fare.
Donna De Palma is a freelance writer based in Rochester.