I’m feeling cruddy today, so this post may not drip with as much sarcasm as the others. I picked up a box of crackers for a cheese plate at Whole Foods last night. My aunt was there and recommended Lesley Stowe’s Raincoast Crisps, and offered to get me a box with some St. Nectaire and a shiny Gala apple. Okay, twist my arm. The selection was vast and I was so enthralled by the crisps that I grabbed the most appealing box- salty date and almond. I vaguely remembered hearing something about the crackers being gluten-free.And they were unsurprisingly, really, really, really good. So good that I made a lunch and a half out of crackers and various condiments after the gym, only to collapse for a series of two-hour naps and spend the day wearing two kinds of plaid. I was confused until I looked at the ingredients- wheat crackers! Usually, I can tell when something is glutenous, because I’m snarfing it and counting down the seconds until I fall asleep, but this sneaked up on me. It was a difficult bind- delicious, expensive crackers. What would you do?
I pretty much ate the box. Come on. You would have done the same thing. I’ve paid for it, of course, by turning into a house-cat, but damn it, it was worth it. So many dates. In my stupor, it occurred to me that you might find it useful to understand how and when to make a cheese plate. But cheese plates are for parties, right? No, fuck that. You’re a party. Have a cheese plate any time you damned well please, and know how to make one. When I was a freshman in college, I baked bread in handleless pots in the communal dormitory kitchen and bought crumbly wedges of Manchego that I cut with a pocket knife. I’m a firm believer in K.I.S.S.- Keep it simple, stupid, and apply that to cheese, too.
This is obviously the most important part of the plate. For a party, the general rule of thumb is having at least one or two of aged, soft, semi-firm, and bleu cheeses. But if it’s just me and the Bedfellow, two cheeses is plenty. We’ve done various classic French cheeses, and flavored cheddars. Last week we had a mozzarella tasting, with ciliegine and burrata. Even one cheese can be enough to make a plate. If you’re unfamilar with some of the varieties and are stuck at the market, the best thing to do is a quick check: how does the cheese feel in your hand? Is it soft and crumbly, or does it look hard? Can you smell it through the package? Most stores have tasting notes for the cheese, and will be gladly to give you a taste of one if you’re curious.
There are proper ways to cut cheese. Round and soft/semi-soft pate cheeses are cut in small wedges from the tip of the ring to the end, and if the cheeses are very small, in thirds. Hard cheeses are cut length-wise, starting at the tip. Veined cheeses are cut either length-wise or on the diagonal, in small wedges starting from the front. Cylinders of cheese are cut in small, neat circles. It’s fine to cut the rind off some cheeses- it’s a matter of preference.
I like to use a variety of condiments, one persisting throughout the plates: butter. I’m told it’s a very Norman trait to put butter on bread or directly on the slice of cheese before eating, and I find it adds to the flavor, texture and decadence of the plate. I’m not crazy about flavored butters, and prefer to add crystals of sea salt to a softened stick, which I usually let lounge on my countertop until it’s gone. I’ve been enjoying different salt mixes lately. This is fleur de sel and black smoked lava salt.
The other condiments you can use are varied. One could cook down caramelized onions. One could make a tomato chutney or candied nuts. For me, whole-grain mustard is as far as I’ll go. Sometimes, dried cranberries. The whole point for me is to feature the cheese and avoid cooking.
3. Fruits and vegetables
Fresh fruits and vegetables are a great pairing. I tend to stick to more mild flavors, like apples and cucumbers, but will occasionally whip out berries or pickled vegetables if the cheese is right. A few years ago, I sliced up strawberries and let them marinate in a mixture of prosecco and a bit of honey, and they were really dashing alongside a runny Coulommiers. If you’re keen to have something snappy and savory with a stronger flavor, you can’t go wrong with onions pickled in red wine vinegar.
It depends on what you like- my personal preference is pieces of warm bread. Some cheeses are so good, they’re best with nothing but a smear of butter! But the crunchy pairings range the gamut from pretzels to flatbread to crackers. This is a fairly self-explanatory section. I feel it necessary to add that it’s good to have something on the neutral side- no bialys or onion rolls- to better complement the cheese.
There are some wonderful accessories for cheese. I own none of them. I have been eying Laguiole cheese knives, but can’t deny the simple effectivity of a basic paring knife and cheese plane if I’m just eating cheese on my own. And for the record, at all the cheese-serving establishments I ate in Paris, not a one bothered with a different knife for each cheese. A cutting board is both great for preparing and serving, and basic ramekins are fine for condiments. If your guests don’t like the rinds of some cheeses, have an empty bowl to the side to deposit them so they aren’t littering the serving platter. And that’s it! Happy cheesing!