A meal without cheese is like a beautiful woman with only one eye.
– Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin
Types of Presentation: The cheese board or cheese course
Rather than highlight one specific cheese for this month’s Indulgence, we decided to focus on the cheese board or course as an integral part of the meal. We are huge fans of the added elegance a selection of cheeses brings to both casual and formal dining; in fact, there are times when dinner for us is just that, along with some accompaniments and a nice bottle of wine.
Of course, since we are such enthusiasts of artisanal cheeses, the cheese course presents an opportunity for us to explore our discoveries with friends, as well as find new combinations for the palate. Cheese can be served either on a cheese board or as its own course as follows:
When served as part of a buffet or family-style meal, the cheese board offers a selection of tastes to complement or enhance the other dishes being served. The board is passed along with other dishes and can be left in the center of the table for continued sampling. It’s also an elegant and easy to prepare part of an hors d’oeuvre party.
When served as a separate course, a selection of cheeses provides a brief repose in the meal for guests to indulge their palates, and can even can take the place of dessert for those who prefer a savory finish. Presenting a selection of varied cheeses gives guests a chance to experience a progression of flavors in one course. As an example: Brillat-Savarin, Campo Montalban with membrillo, Speziato al tartufo and Stilton.
Selecting Your Cheeses
The cheese selections you serve should invite conversation and exploration. On a board, the cheese should inspire curiosity; as a final course, it should signify the end of the dinner and the beginning of the final dégustation (tasting).
You can take a very simple route and serve one magnificent cheese, select a range of cheeses from around the world or ones crafted with different types of milk. Since there are nearly 800 classifications of cheese, the variations are endless; we tend to craft our test kitchen selections to showcase a variety of flavor, intensity, appearance, and milk type. Most importantly, we try to work with attentive fromagers (or cheese mongers) who are attentive and ready to taste and explore along with us.
Select by Grouping
One of the easiest ways to determine your cheese selection is to aim for creating an array of textures or classifications. By texture, we refer to classifications as follows (with some examples):
- Soft (mild and milky in flavor): Cottage or farmer’s cheese, young goat cheese or Quark
- Semi-soft (mild and buttery): Bel Paese, Pecorino Toscano or Havarti
- Semi-firm (mild when young, becoming more flavorful with age): Asiago, Fontina, Edam, Gouda or Mahon
- Hard (clean and mellow when young, sharp and tangy when aged): Cheddar, Colby, Blue Cheshire or Tête de Moine
- Extra hard (mellow, robust and sweet when young, becoming sharp with age, and often developing casein crystalline bits that are entirely edible): Parmigiano Reggiano and Mimoulette
You can also choose a selection of bloomy rind cheeses, with Brie and Camembert being the most well-known. The surface of the rind is created by a mold or spore, such as penicillin. These cheeses are tangy and rich, and melt in your mouth; a soft center is always desirable. Their flavors do not become richer as they age, though they may achieve more complexity.
Another type of rind is a “washed-rind cheese,” which remains slightly wet on the outside during the aging process, or affinage; over time, a rind develops. An example of this is Grès de Vosges, which develops a bacteria called ferment du rouge. There are also blue-veined cheeses (intense, strong, tangy and somewhat salty flavors, with a pungent aroma) such as Gorgonzola, Roquefort, Stilton and Cabrales, which are created by penetrating the cheeses with thin needles to allow the mold to get inside and create the distinctive flavors of blue cheeses.
Of course, you can pick out your cheeses by type of milk. Chèvre is the generic name for all goat milk cheeses. Sheep milk and cow milk, along with goat milk cheeses, are the most common, but some cheeses are a combination of the three.
For first attempts, it is easiest (and some will argue best) to have three selections of cheese, one from each of the various types of milk: cow, sheep and goat. Choose a range of intensity in flavor, and then select texture to add complexity to the cheese service. After you begin to taste and experience this classic combination for a board or a cheese course, allow your own palate and creativity to be your guide.
Serving Your Cheese
There will be serious discussions by serious cheese lovers as to how to serve this indulgence. Ideally, each of those we invite to our table will understand how to cut a serving of cheese from its whole, or we will have taken the time to portion out carefully sliced pieces for our guests. Since there is no precise etiquette for cheese service, the style and occasion can dictate; we find it easiest to precut and prepare plates for service when introducing new cheeses or a range of flavors to our guests. However, at the end of a casual gathering, or when wine and cheese is the theme of the evening, an arrangement of cheeses on a passed platter makes it easier for everyone to indulge in a way in which they are comfortable. (You might help guests along by slicing the first piece of each cheese as an example so they know which knife to use and how to cut it.)
Regardless of your style, a cheese served at room temperature (around 70 degrees) is appropriate. Although most retail stores sell their cheeses wrapped in plastic (horrors!), you should remove the plastic when you get them home – cheeses are living foods, and need to breathe. Instead of keeping them in plastic, store them in a lightly coated wax paper (like the paper used in a deli to wrap cold cuts), and keep them in a loosely enclosed paper bag.
Each board or platter should have one knife for each selection of cheese. If there are to be accompaniments, they should be served separately at the table, or alongside the cheese on the cheese board.
As with any tasting experience, your tasting should progress in the order of strength, moving from mild to robust to very strong. Similar to tasting wine, a bite of cheese should be savored on the palate, eaten slowly, and allowed to melt in the mouth. Soft, semi-soft and blue cheeses are best tasted by pressing them against the palate with your tongue; harder and sharper cheeses are tasted best with the tip of the tongue. Experiment with the taste experience by accentuating the flavors of the cheese with a sip of wine, a piece of fruit, or a toasted nut. And most importantly of all, don’t forget to savor the moment.
Though we found that the flavor and quality of good cheese needs little else than a precious rare moment to savor the experience, it is pleasurable to present a variety of equally well-selected artisanal breads or crackers, ripe seasonal or dried fruits, and nuts that have been toasted to serve as a complement to some of your cheese flavors.
When offering aged cheeses, complementary aged vinegars are lovely as a condiment; use aged balsamic for hard Italian cheeses or aged sherry vinegar for hard, aged Spanish cheeses. Of course, fruit chutneys, honey, or dense fruit cakes round out a cheese course as a dessert course, providing the bite of sweetness typically enjoyed at the end of dinner service. A classic pairing for Manchego, for example, is membrillo, a sweet gelled quince paste made in Spain. In Central and South America, this has been adapted to include locally available ingredients, where queso de papa is paired with Guava paste, and called Romeo y Julieta.
We have highlighted below two varieties of dishes: those that include cheese as a core component, and accompaniments to serve with your cheese boards and courses. We encourage you to experiment and explore your palate, and make use of your local cheese monger if one is available near you.
Cheese as an ingredient:
Apple & Blue Cheese Tartine
Gorgonzola-Stuffed Steak with Prosciutto
Mini Savory Bites
Savory Cheese Popovers
Silky Blue Cheese Soup
Nutmeg Cheddar Bread Sticks
Basil Pasta Rags with Four Cheese Filling
Sweet Potato & Gorgonzola Gratin
Fluffy Mascarpone Omelets
Herbed Mascarpone & Beet Napoleons with Walnut Oil
Mascarpone Cheesecake with Honeyed Pistachios
Mascarpone Brownies with Honey Chocolate Sauce
Hazelnut Mascarpone Crème
Kalamata Mascarpone Spread
Roasted Peppers Stuffed with Halloumi & Pine Nuts
Accompaniments for cheese:
If you are unable to buy good cheeses locally, we suggest the following as potential resources:
Photo: Kelly Cline
Dossier adapted from the Gilded Fork article “Cheese: A Matter of Course” by Donna Zotter, with additional contributions by Jennifer Iannolo and Mark Tafoya.