Party Tricks: Creating a Cheese Board

You know where you will find me at a party, if it’s an option? Next to the cheese board.

Cheddar, Camembert, St. Andre, Spanish, French, Swiss, blue, aged, fresh… whatever. I will eat it. (OK, fine, I don’t know if I’d be into that one with the maggots in it.)

But you know what I love almost as much as eating cheese? Creating a delicious cheese board to share with other cheese enthusiasts. Of course, you can always just make one with stuff you know and love, and that’s fine. But sometimes it’s fun to shake things up and try new stuff.

There are a couple of guidelines that are helpful to keep in mind when creating a board. The simplest is the “clock” cheese board setup. Start at 6 with a mild cheese, then a slightly more intense one at 9, going a little stronger at 12, then the boldest one at 3. So:

IMG_1065
Simple, right?

And once you’ve got this down, you can really start to play around with new cheeses in the same family as the one you’re familiar with.

So, instead of the brie you know you love at 6 o’clock, try a Fromager d’Affinois (a gorgeous buttery French number) or a Robiola (an Italian cheese usually made from a mixture of milks).

Try an Ossau Iraty (a creamy semi-firm sheep’s milk cheese that is said to be one of the first cheeses EVER) or an aged goat cheese like Tomme in place of the more familiar Manchego for your 9 o’clock cheese.

For the cheese at 12, go ahead with a cheddar, but pick an aged one that has those lovely crystals in it. I love Coastal cheddar, which is by no means hard to find, but is so far removed from the yellow blocks in the grocery store that it’s a totally different animal.

Now, for your 3 o’clock cheese, you get to really go out on a limb. You will find that some people have just decided they don’t like blue cheese. These people make me sad. I love blue cheese. So I tend to choose one for that part of the board. I’ll play nice and pick a less funky one, like Roaring Forties, which is a sweet and creamy blue that has converted more than one former blue-averse dinner guest. If I’m feeling kind of naughty, I’ll choose one that’s slightly less accessible (but still delicious, because CHEESE) like Valdeon (Spanish, intense).

What always makes a cheese board fun for me is finding tasty accoutrement for each cheese. I once paired a goat cheese wrapped in hoja santa leaves with vodka-spiked cherry tomatoes. The licorice-ness of the leaves and the peppery-ness of the vodka played perfectly with the sweetness of the tomato and the tangy flavor of the cheese.

This is the fun part, because this is where you get to sample the cheeses (because of course you got extra so you can try them all) and think of fun pairings.

Smell and taste each cheese very carefully, holding the cheese in your mouth a little longer than you normally would. (I don’t recommend doing this in front of anyone you don’t know well.) Think about what the flavor(s) remind(s) you of. Does the aroma remind you of grass, or dirt, or lemons? Does the flavor make you think of mushrooms, or walnuts, or caramel? That’s your jumping-off point. For example: what goes well with walnuts? Honey, apples, prosciutto–take your pick. So a cheese that reminds you of walnuts will likely go well with one of these.

So you’ve got your cheeses, and you’ve got your accoutrements. How to present it? Well, you can invest in a proper cheese board if you think you’ll be using it relatively often. If not, a wooden or bamboo cutting board is totally fine also. I love mine because it’s slate, so it’s kind of beautiful and minimalist,  but also because I can write on it with chalk if I want to label the cheeses.

Listen, I know this is a lot of information. The simple fact is: cheese is awesome. No matter what you put with it–be it crackers or olives or pound cake (OMG HOW FANTASTIC WOULD THAT BE), it’s still cheese. So don’t stress, just do what you want, and have fun with it.

I will leave you with some of my favorite cheeses and what I like to pair with them. Feel free to use this information, or not. Totally up to you.

MILD (6 o’clock)

Mt. Tam pair with red grapes, fig jam

Hoja Santa pair with plums, roasted beets, grape tomatoes

Piper’s Pyramide pair with raspberries, balsamic vinegar

MEDIUM (9 o’clock)

Robiola Rocchetta pair with crusty bread, apricot preserves

Old Kentucky Tomme pair with apple butter, roasted grapes

Ossau-Iraty pair with figs, hazelnuts

BOLD (12 o’clock)

Neal’s Yard Montgomery’s Cheddar pair with seeded bread, cornichons, Fuji or Gala apples

5 Spoke Creamery Tumbleweed pair with fresh figs, pistachios

Pecorino Romano pair with walnuts, pears, honey

STRONG (3 o’clock)

Consider Bardwell Dorset pair with pickled onions, Granny Smith Apples

Roaring Forties Blue pair with Famous Chocolate Wafers, quince paste

Bayley Hazen Blue pair with dark chocolate, dried cherries

Further reading (in case you’re interested):

The Cheese Clock (you don’t think I made it up, do you? Aw, thanks.)

Scardello (Local Dallas cheese shop! They make a pretty awesome sandwich too.)

The Mozzarella Co. (Local Dallas cheesemaker! Paula is a genius. I want to be her when I grow up.)

Saxelby Cheesemongers (My favorite cheesemonger in New York. Anne Saxelby knows from cheese.)

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