Your Awesome Cheese Course
By Janet Fletcher
If you aren’t serving cheese when people come to your home for dinner, you are working too hard. A cheese platter is the easiest course you can prepare: no dirty dishes, no last-minute goofs, no worries about overcooking or under-salting. And it’s a great excuse to open another bottle of wine.
An appealing cheese course is 80 percent shopping, 20 percent presentation. And don’t worry about making the “right” choices. If you love a cheese, serve it. Your enthusiasm for the cheeses on your tray is more important than whether you have the latest blue-ribbon winner.
A cheese course has been part of my dinner menu—with guests or without—for about three decades, so I have some opinions. Based on my experience, here are five steps to an awesome cheese course:
- Find a good cheese merchant and ask for advice. Try to shop at a counter that cuts cheese to order so you can taste before you buy. Cheese declines once cut, so the fresher the cut, the better. Ask the cheesemonger what he or she would take home for dinner. These folks know what’s under-ripe, what’s over-ripe and what tastes great that day.
- Aim for variety. Whether you put three cheeses on your platter or ten, try to offer your guests a range of experiences: fresh to aged; soft to hard; mild to pungent. That said, a single cheese in perfect condition can make a beautiful cheese course. Or consider setting up a “terroir” tasting, like wine enthusiasts do, with Cheddars from England, Vermont, Wisconsin and California.
- Serve cheeses at cool room temperature. Take your selections out of the fridge about an hour before you plan to serve them to allow their texture to soften and their aroma to bloom.
- Accompaniments? Nice but not necessary. I prefer a plain non-sour baguette or rustic country loaf over crackers, but honestly, the bread is for guests. I eat cheese au naturel. Avoid sweet condiments like honey or preserves if you’re pouring dry red wine. Instead, consider savory companions like toasted almonds or walnuts.
- Don’t overthink the wine. With three or more cheeses on your tray, it’s unlikely that you’ll find a bottle that complements all of them equally. In that situation, Merlot is a great go-to. It has enough tannic structure for big cheeses, but not too much for the milder ones. I often pour Rutherford Hill Merlot with a cheese course and find that the wine plays well with anything but blues.
Janet Fletcher is the publisher of Planet Cheese, a complimentary e-mail newsletter, and the author of Cheese & Wine and The Cheese Course.