Tips for putting together the perfect cheese platter:
- Don't overwhelm your guests with too many cheeses, which may tire their palates and fill them up. Focus on 3-4 great cheeses with simple, carefully chosen accompaniments.
- Go for variety, in terms of texture, taste and appearance. There are so many fantastic cheeses out there that you can get variety even within a chosen theme - say Italian cheeses, all goat's milk cheese of varying ages, blues from around the world, etc.
- Which brings us to unifying theme, and whether you need one. If I'm having a cocktail party and just want to showcase a few great cheeses, I go with a variety of my greatest hits and new favorites. But if the cheese plate is the beginning or ending to a great meal, I use menu for cheese plate inspiration. Serving pasta? How about a selection of cheese from Italy? A locavore menu of Northern California's finest ingredients? Why not an array of the gorgeous artisan cheeses made right in our own backyard?
- Think about your wine selection when choosing your cheeses. If it's summer and you know guests will be drinking light white wines with the cheese course, think about fresh goat's milk cheeses, which love a splash of lemon zest in a wine, or soft and semi-firm cow, sheep and goat's milk cheeses that work with off-dry, good acid wines like Pinot Gris, Riesling, unoaked Chardonnay, Vermentino or dry Rose . A rainy night dessert cheese course? Try aged gouda, mature sheep and cow's milk cheeses, or any blue with a nutty sherry or dessert wine. Want to serve red wine with your cheese? Stick to hard, mature cheeses like cheddar, dry jack or parmigiano-reggiano.
- When in doubt, choose bubbles! Sparkling is the ultimate cheese wine - goes with everything. Dry rose is also a good choice to pair with a variety of cheeses.
- Bring cheeses to room temp! Take them out of the fridge and unwrap them at least 2 hours (or even 3 for large pieces) before you plan to serve. This might be the most important rule, as cheese will not show it's true colors when too cold - flavors are muted and the texture is off.
- Accompaniments: often misunderstood but can send your cheese platter over the top. Nuts, honey, fig jam, mostarda, preserved and dried fruits, fresh fruit, bread, olives - all can be great complements to cheese when chosen carefully. The trick is keeping it simple and seasonal, and learning what to pair with a specific cheese to create that moment when eyes roll back and guests groans in pleasure. I'll show you some of my favorite pairings.
- Presentation is key: choose a board or tray big enough to hold all of the cheeses with the various accompaniments presented next to the cheeses they go with. I use a big rectangular black walnut board, which contrasts beautifully with the light colored cheeses and leaves plenty of room between the cheeses so flavors don't mingle.
- Implements: ideally you have one knife for each cheese to further prevent mingling of flavors. One of those sets of cheese knives is a good investment - it really is much nicer to chunk parmagiano out with the proper wedge knife, and cutting soft and blue cheeses is much easier with the knives with holes in them to prevent sticking. In a perfect world, I have one knife for each cheese on the board, and each guest has a small cheese plate and mini Laguiole cheese knife/spreader that has the prongs at the end of picking up the pieces you just cut. Plus they're very cute!
- Final tip: properly wrap leftovers in breathable cheese paper and you'll enjoy the bits and pieces long after the party wraps up. If you keep leftover in plastic, it'll suffocate and die within a matter of days.
Spuntino di Ottimista
1957 Union Street
San Francisco, California 94123 TEL (415) 931.6410
About Melissa Gisler Mondalou:
Melissa Gisler Mondalou of Spuntino di Ottimista the cheese and gourmet food shop in Cow Hollow offers fondue making parties at the shop throughout the winter and can show your viewers "How to Fondue." From selecting a fondue pot to the perfect blend of cheeses for the sauce and the accompaniments including wine pairings, Melissa makes this retro classic fun and up-to-date.