I’ve heard that France produces more than 600 types of cheese, while Britain is credited with about 700 varieties. Yes — you read that correctly. Two pins on a map, 1,300 different types of cheese. So when it comes to selecting a handful of cheeses to serve at your next soirée, the choices can be daunting. I hear you.
But relax. It’s cheese! And the good news is that, so long as you buy your cheese from a reputable cheese shop or a grocery with a decent cheese department, you’ll be fine. (Well, maybe stay away from Casu Marzu just to be safe.)
A good cheese board is made up of some or all of the following components, and I’ll break each down in detail:
- Cheese, bien sûr
- Something briny
- Spreads, of the sweet or savory variety (or both)
- Nuts and fruit
- Crackers, toasts or bread
There are a few ways you can approach selecting your cheese. The most common route is to choose a few contrasting varieties: for example, a hard cheese + a soft cheese + a stinky cheese, or choose an array of contrasting flavor profiles (sweet vs. pungent, mellow vs. sharp, etc.).
I think it’s also fun to do a survey of different cheeses from the same region, like Vermont or the Basque Country. Or you can do an Old World versus New World board, highlighting a type of cheese that’s produced in both the United States and Europe — cheddar-style cheeses made in the Midwest and England or blue cheeses from France and Northern California, for example.
Whichever way you go, you’ll want to plan on about 3-5 ounces of cheese per person (more, if we share the same friends). And it’s probably best to purchase fewer, high-quality varieties than more of the inexpensive kind.
Also be sure to ask your cheesemonger for a taste of any cheeses that you aren’t familiar with. I’m pretty adventurous when it comes to cheese, so one of my favorite ways to put a board together is to just ask the cheesemonger for recommendations and then go with whatever’s been suggested. Caution, thrown to the wind!
If you go that route, your cheesemonger will probably ask you what, if anything, else you’ll be serving, what you’ll be drinking, who’ll be there and what the vibe will be. She’s not being nosy, she’s coming up with spot-on suggestions.
Briny flavors can be a nice counterpoint to creamy, buttery or nutty cheeses. Any sort of pickled vegetable can work here, but cornichons and onions are pretty classic. I’ve been using a mix of pickled carrots and cauliflower florets lately because pickled cauliflower is incredible. Have you tried it? Incredible.
A bit of mustard or even something sweet to either spread onto the cheese itself or onto a cracker introduces a new flavor element. Grainy Dijon mustard is great, and so are mildly sweet chutneys and stone-fruit jams. Avoid anything too cloying though, like the strawberry jam you put on your morning toast. I also see honey on cheese boards at restaurants now and again, and I’m not really a fan — but that’s me.
Nuts & Fruit
A small dish of raw or simply roasted walnuts, pecans, almonds or cashews can add some crunch to a cheese board, and they help reset your tastebuds when you’re switching between cheeses. Likewise, fresh or dried fruit like apple, fig, apricot and grape adds sweetness and texture.
Crackers, toasts and bread
These offer a little crunch, cleanse the palette and can even act as a conveyance for the cheese. Stick with crackers and breads that aren’t too heavily seasoned, so you don’t drown out the flavors of the cheeses. Something with a little black pepper, sea salt, sesame or dried rosemary can be nice though.
SERVING YOUR CHEESEBOARD
So now that you’ve decided on what you’re going to serve, you need to assemble your board. If you don’t have a dedicated slate, marble or wood cheese board, nearly any serving platter or large plate will work. In a pinch, a clean cutting board can stand in, too.
Cheese should always be served at room temperature, so be sure to take it out of the fridge 30 minutes or so before you serve it.
Set the cheeses on the board first, spacing them out so people won’t bump into one as they’re helping themselves to another. Each cheese needs its own knife, too.
Next, think about your accompaniments and which cheese they’ll best pair with; position them accordingly. Pickled onion? Over there next to the nutty Edam. Salty, crumbly Roquefort? Best pals with toasted walnuts.
In the unlikely event that you are left with uneaten cheese at the end of your shindig, cheese papers are a great way to store them for later. And trust me, nothing makes a better breakfast than a hunk of cheese, some crusty bread and good coffee.
How about you? What do you like to put on your cheese board?