There are no hard and fast rules for assembling a cheese platter. Old School says to have a variety of textures & tastes, at minimum a soft cheese like Brie, a hard cheese like Comte, and a blue cheese. If you happen to live in an area where you have local cheese, God bless you, that would absolutely be my first bet. If you have a few people over for dinner, it would be good to set out a small wedge of the three standards, though that can get boring after a few dinners, so feel free to mix it up.
While we are not in France, you can still find good cheese at places like Trader Joe’s and dress them up a bit. Here is a large $3 roll of plain goat cheese, which I rolled in finely chopped chives and baby thyme from my garden~
For the presentation, you can put your cheese on a wood bread board (my preference), or for fancier meals find something else, even a nice platter, plate or two will do. For our family parties, I use a marble pastry slab; it helps to space the cheese out as much as you can. I always put something under the cheese; you can use those paper leaves you see for sale, but I find the real deal is much better; these are grape leaves from the garden; find something food-safe from your own garden if possible; it sets the cheese off and looks infinitely more appetizing, doesn’t it?~
Labeling each cheese is important; first, because guests want to know what they are eating, and two, because you won’t have to stand around and answer the questions of “what’s that cheese again?” It works well for my family because they can educate themselves and tell me which cheese, exactly, they liked. If the cheese comes with any kind of pretty label, you can use that. Or simple hand-written paper fold-overs; I sometimes use place-card holders. This weekend I used fresh bay leaves (food-safe, again) from the garden with a white Sharpie~
I arrange the pieces in a counter-clockwise fashion, starting with the mildest (goat cheese) and ending with the strongest, which will always be the Blue. Not that anyone follows that order, but it’s the way it’s done. In the middle-range we have soft cheeses like this one, Delice de Bourgogne, which I am happy can now be found at both Trader Joes and Costco~
Above all, I try to find cheese that I know the crowd will like. For smaller gatherings, my family will enjoy a nice creamy Gorgonzola, every time. It’s good if the cheese is relevant to the meal; I hosted the graduation dinner last year, which was Italian themed, and we had all Italian cheese; see that post HERE. This weekend, for another graduation, my sister hosted, but I did the cheese tray. I included Irish Cheddar for the graduate and his Irish Grandpapa~
As this was the only starter, I opted for two kinds of blue, as they have a full “taste” and would go well with people who were starting to drink.
Add whatever you want to the cheese plateau, on the side, in dishes or in the middle of the cheeses if the fruit can stay apart from the cheese. Olives, fresh figs, nuts or dried fruits all work well. This time I used soft dried fruits and raw almonds from the Corona del Mar market; here dried cherries~
very soft and delicious dried plums here, and also a few dried apricots~
Set out one knife for each cheese. You can use spreaders, fancy butter knives, or even regular case knives. Cheese knives make great gifts, high or low, if someone you love is also in love with cheese. I gifted a boxed sterling silver French cheese knife to Anne & Dan last year for their wedding; it was very well received. For this party of 100 people, I brought two inexpensive Mis en Demeure knives from Paris, but I left the sterling at home and used whatever I could find at Sis’ house. If each cheese has its own knife, there is not as much mixing of flavors~
To go with the cheese, I use various thin crackers if I want the guests to eat light; bread if I want the crowd to fill up or cut the alcohol. In this basket I used sourdough on the left, Poilane “au levain” bread at center, and raisin walnut at right, of course on an vintage Metis dishtowel. A second basket was full of thinly sliced baguette.
Aim for bread that is bite-size. Whether it’s fruit or bread, think about if you want to put a piece that big in your mouth and eat it. This is how I have taught my nieces to cut the pieces just a little smaller, not in hunks. No one wants to chaw on a great big hunk of bread at a party, it is not attractive~ so set your guests up to eat daintily. Keep the pieces manageable, especially if it’s cocktail hour~
I will be very Americaine here and say that this whole tray was $40 worth of cheese from Trader Joe’s. The bread was $35. This is before the knives were added, and as the guests were circling ravenously~
A short while later, this is what was left. You can call it a hash, but I call it a success~ an hour later, everything was picked off this tray. I got the count right, and that was what I hoped for~
Cheese trays are a great way to introduce new cheeses to your guests, and they can provide a nice variation to the meal. We tend to like cheese for an appetizer in the U.S. Nothing wrong with that; go with what works for your and your guests.
My favorite place to find cheese in the U.S. are Trader Joe’s for basics, The Cheese Store of Beverly Hills is also very good and they can ship anywhere in the U.S.; just ring up Dominic and tell him what you want and he can pull it together for you. If you happen to be in the San Francisco area, be sure to stop by the Cheese Board in Berkeley. Amazing. In New York you have Fairway and Zabar’s of course, as well as others; there are lots of great places for cheese in NYC but I liked to shop at Fairway. When R and I used to visit his folks in Madison we used to visit some of the local dairies, and I loved tasting the fresh cheese curds. Ah such good memories.
Later this week I will tell you about the cheeses that we ate while in France last month.