Creating a Cheese Board
Humans have been making cheese for millennia. It’s the perfect way to make milk last longer without refrigeration. To me, it feels like magic how the flavors and textures evolve into something far more interesting than their plain milk originator. The sheer variety of cheeses found worldwide is mind-boggling. I’m endlessly fascinated that only a handful of milk varieties (most commonly cow, sheep, and goat but also buffalo, yak, camel, horse and just about any mammal) can create so many different styles and varieties. Then there are cheeses that are flavored with garlic and herbs, truffles, beer- or wine-washed, and those wrapped in leaves or pressed with flowers and herbs or nuts. Just like wine, good quality cheeses express their terroir, that notion that the food is a reflection not just of one ingredient (milk) but of every aspect of their creation: what the animals eat, the time of year the animal is milked, the breed and every aspect of how the curd is handled and the choices the cheese maker makes along the way.
With one of the most well-known cheesemongers in the country two blocks from my restaurant, I am spoiled with selection, and I can taste any of them at any time. If you have access to a good cheese store, I highly recommend supporting it, and always ask for tastes and recommendations. Cheese is alive, and it changes all the time.
If the cheese board is part of an hors d’oeuvres spread followed by a dinner, or if you’re going European style and serving cheese after dinner, then four cheeses provide plenty of variety. If you’re throwing a cocktail party or a tapas/mezze affair, you might increase the number of choices, but I wouldn’t recommend exceeding six.
Figure 1 ounce total per person if you’re serving dinner or other food before or after. If it’s a cocktail party, depending on how much food you’re having and how long the party is, you could increase up to 2 ounces per person. Here’s the math: Count your guests and multiply by the number of ounces, then that total gets divided among all the cheeses you purchase. (E.g., 12 guests x 1 ounce = 12 ounces total, therefore 3 ounces each of four varieties of cheese.) Some stores don’t let you buy small amounts, but cheese keeps well. Wrap cheeses individually, and keep in separate airtight containers.
How to choose?
Consider a variety of milk types and textures. Creamy cheeses are almost universally loved. Blues are always the hardest sell. Sometimes it’s fun to start with a geographic area (e.g., country, France; or part of a country, Loire Valley) as a way to narrow your focus.
How to serve?
For accompaniments, I love olives, nuts, seasonal fresh fruit, honey and chutneys. I prefer plain water crackers, crostini, baguettes and sourdough breads. Most flavored crackers conflict with the flavor of the cheese. Don’t forget to bring your cheese to room temperature before serving, usually at least an hour unless it’s hot out.
Abigail Hitchcock ’94 is the chef/owner of Camaje Bistro in New York’s Greenwich Village, where she also teaches cooking classes and — as a certified sommelier — conducts wine tastings. She eats cheese every day, and her menu features a small selection of artisanal cheeses that changes throughout the year. Learn more at camaje.com.
This article appeared as “Creating a Cheese Board” in the winter 2019 issue of the Alumnae Quarterly.
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February 20, 2019