It might be bad for me, but I love cheese. I’ve tried to quit many times. In fact, just after deciding to go vegan a few months ago, I encountered an enticing array of unusual cheeses on a plate at a party, and that was it. I could not not reach out for one piece, then another, and another of this intriguing, intense and deeply soul-satisfying food.
So if I must eat cheese — and clearly, I must — then I commit to consuming the best cheese in the world. And this means I need to know how to make mouthwatering cheese boards of my own to share with friends and family.
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“I like to include the four food groups,” says Norbert Wabnig, with a twinkle in his eye. “Goat, cow, sheep and blue.” Wabnig is the owner of the upscale European-style Cheese Store of Beverly Hills, and he bustles about his fragrant shop, pulling cheeses that he might include on a plate of trendy choices.
Here are a few cheese plates that he and other experts recommend:
Wabnig suggests starting with a popular creamy brie-like cow’s milk cheese called D’Affinois. Then you could add a mild goat cheese such as Bûche Caprifeuille, he said, then a semi-soft sheep’s milk cheese such as P’tit Basque, and finally a blue — he recommends the intense Rogue River Blue Cheese from Oregon. It is wrapped in grape leaves that have been soaked in pear brandy.
2. Goat cheeses
Goat cheeses are always in vogue, says Wabnig. Here’s what Tina Birky at The Cheese Board Collective, a worker-owned collective in Berkeley, California, would include in an all-goat cheese plate: “I would pick the Humboldt Fog — it has an ash vein — and the Fleur Verte, a French young chèvre with tarragon and pink peppercorns. Then the Italian ash-coated cheese called Nerina,” she says, explaining that the ash does not affect the flavor of the cheese, but is added as a way to preserve the rind on the young cheese. She would also include in this cheese board a Sainte Maure — the Belgian version — and finally a cheese “that is a little bit stronger – Leonora from Spain.”
Best accompaniments would be fresh bread, honey or slices of pear, Birky says.
3. European cheeses
“It’s good to have a mix of different textures and looks,” says Wabnig and suggests a European plate that includes Gruyère from Switzerland, then three cheeses from Italy: Robiola, made from cow, goat and sheep milk; Panteleo, a pearl white goat cheese and Piacentinu, a sheep’s milk cheese; and finally Mimolette, a cow’s milk cheese from France. Accompaniments might include Castelvetrano olives, dried apricots and candied pecans.
4. Domestics and raw cheeses
“You don’t want to stink everyone out,” says Maggie Ehler, manager of the Cheese Store of Silverlake in Los Angeles, who comes from a family of Midwesterners who are not too adventurous when it comes to cheese. Ehler has a favorite selection of domestics and raw cheeses that are pungent, but not overwhelming in flavor.
“I start with a raw cow’s milk cheese called Dancing Fern from the Tennessee creamery Sequatchie Cove Farm,” she says. “This cheese has a slight bit of funk without being overpowering.” She includes the Shakerag Blue, also from Sequatchie Cove Farm. “It’s wrapped in fig leaves soaked in Chattanooga whiskey. I’m a bourbon girl and this pairs really well with bourbon cocktail,” she says. Then she adds L’Etivaz, a hard Swiss cheese. “It’s fruity, nutty, salty.”
“And then my favorite goat cheese — Leonora from Spain. It’s bright, with a little bit of acidity, full flavored, really sweet and kind of decadent with that crumbly goat texture. It really livens up a plate.”
5. Esoteric cheeses
Is your audience adventurous? Then challenge them with new flavors, says Wagnig. This cheese plate he recently created for a customer included Vacherin from France; Beemster XO, which is an aged Gouda from the Netherlands; Bûcheron, a goat cheese from France; Aschenblau, a blue cheese from Germany; Casatica, a water buffalo cheese from Italy; Saint Estèphe and Sainte Maure, two goat cheeses from France; and Chabrin, a cheese made from goat and cow’s milk from the Basque country in France.
More cheese board tips
» Ask your local fromager to help you make the selection of cheeses for your plate. For Xander Whistler of the Artisan Cheese Gallery in Studio City, California, the fun of creating cheese boards for customers is including his own current favorites, for example Ewephoria, a Gouda from the Netherlands that is “crumbly, slightly sweet and tangy,” he says.
» Serve cheese with good bread, says Wabnig. “It should be fresh, crisp and warm.” Other accompaniments include fruit, nuts, cranberries and jam.
» Plan to serve 2 to 4 ounces of cheese per person, Wabnig says, depending on whether the cheese is being served as the main meal or just an appetizer.
Main photo: A holiday cheese board created by the Cheese Store of Beverly Hills. Credit: Cheese Store of Beverly Hills