During my 20s, I discovered with great delight that cocktail guests were far more interested in my ability to build a cheese and charcuterie spread than they were in my cooking skills. This was a joy because I definitely excel at the former over the latter, while the specialty section of the market seemed to baffle my friends.
Follow along here to pick up my tricks, and you’ll be spending more time opening wine bottles than slaving over delicate hors d’oeuvres.
*1. Always offer an odd number of cheeses*
I learned the first (and oddest) rule of building a cheese plate from a culinary graduate with whom I sold cheese and wine at an organic market. This originates with formal French cuisine, and is not only visually pleasing but will keep your guests going around the plate as they sample. In my experience, a plate of four cheeses sits and goes to waste, while a plate of three or five is hovered over. I truly cannot explain why it works, but it does.
*2. Have Fun Selecting a Variety*
Do not get overwhelmed at the cheese counter. Most counters are organized by region or defining characteristic, and once you understand a few basics you will find that selecting cheese (or any other specialty item such as wine, coffee, beer, and cured meat) is more culinary adventure than structured snobbery.
Verify that your shop is curating and packing their counter carefully by ensuring that at least half of their cheese is cut from a wheel, and that each piece is wrapped and sealed tightly. A good shop or counter will let you sample to your heart’s content, and will cut down larger pieces or cut into a whole wheel if there are no wedges available.
Each region tends to have its specialties, but all cheeses tend to fall into one of the following categories: Soft, firm, aged, blue, and novelty/studded. Milks typically include cow, sheep, or goat, but can also include vegetarian milks such as coconut or soy. Each cheese will vary in pungence, salt, oil, and texture. The “type” of cheese is generally decided by the production process and resulting flavors. Do not feel you have to know cheese to try cheese!
That is what your cheesemonger is for. Sample, choose favorites, and keep a variety.
The best plate will include one soft wedge, one firm or aged, and one blue or novelty/studded. If you have a large gathering, add two of your choice. It is best to serve at least one recognizable cheese like a brie or firm goat’s milk. Too many unusual choices might spook your guests. That being said, many cheeses have sweet or interesting stories, so take the time to talk to the person selling them to you.
*3. Offer Proper Accompaniment*
Once you have your cheese, then it starts to get a little tricky. Pairing the right flavors with cheese turns your plate into a spread. If you are in a hurry, you generally cannot go wrong with a green apple, baguette, prosciutto, and mild olives. Pair with acidic red and fruity white wines and you should be safe.
For a more complex array of flavors, simply remember to balance texture and flavor. Pungent blue and white cheeses do very well with sweet or tart spreads on hefty crackers or biscuits. Delicate, soft brie is delicious on ginger crisps and fruit. Hard, oily cheeses work well with full flavors such as juicy apples or jalapeno crackers or meats. Offer an array of savory and sweet, and don’t be afraid to add cake or other unusual items.
Intense cheeses are the exception, as they can compete with other overwhelming flavors. For a culturally eclectic mix, try stinky Tallegio with caramelized onions and wasabi.
Choosing charcuterie is a simple as experimenting. Most cured meats are delicately different, making them both exciting and relatively foolproof. Just make sure you watch out for some of the more interesting varieties, such as terrine or pate, as these are fabulous but definitely hold their own in a spread.
Finally, wine pairings are a flexible art. The hard and fast rule is to make sure your foods don’t overwhelm your wine in terms of flavor or texture, especially oily or spicy foods as they can alter your palate. In general, pair reds with aged or rich goat cheese, white with sticky and aromatic soft cheese, and dessert wines with intense blues and other pungent varieties. If you are serving a wine flight, make sure your cheese plate fits the course with which it is being served. Cheese plates served at the end of a meal should offer the same wine as the previous course to keep the palate relatively consistent.
*4. Arrange, Present, Enjoy!*
Plate your cheeses from mildest to strongest, and group their food pairings around or near them. For large parties, you may offer written wine pairings, but for smaller gatherings leave it to be a topic of conversation. Start each cheese with its own knife or utensil, and cut the first slice. If your guests are unsure, start eating them yourself!
Specialty foods are revered among culinary circles because they are rich in flavor and history or have a unique production process. That does not make them inaccessible to the layperson; to the contrary, you should be enjoying them. And remember: If you do not like your choices, simply pour more wine.