A good cheese platter can be the highlight of any meal, featuring as the main event or as the perfect finish to a memorable night. But it’s not as simple as just choosing a cheese you like and slapping it down with some crisp bread. A couple of simple rules and a bit of insight can take an average cheese board and raise it to remarkable heights.[fold]
“Firstly, you need to try and make everyone happy,” says Stefano di Blasi of Casa Gusto importing warehouse Salt Meats Cheese in Alexandria, where they make their own mozzarella and stock a varied selection of world cheeses. “So choose a soft cheese, a hard cheese, a blue cheese – because people either love or hate blue cheese – and something a bit different too. You need a mixture of everything.”
Then you need to choose accompaniments. “You need a combination of textures,” continues di Blasi. “Soft textures like jam or fig usually go with the hard cheeses and then hard textures, like nuts or crackers, go with the soft cheeses… For example, with a brie or a camembert you should have crostini or a hard bread. While with a hard cheese, you could have it with jam or honey, like pecorino is famously served with truffle honey.”
For di Blasi, you don’t need to pile your board too high once you know what you’re serving. The secret is to encourage everyone to tuck in, but to also leave them wanting more.
“I like to have it on one board, laid out so that people can just jump on it and share it. Don’t make things too fancy or too complicated… It’s a social experience, something to share with friends. No side plates, just one board in the middle with everyone helping themselves is best.”
Here’s our step-by-step guide to making the best out of cheese board:
- Mix it up: Make sure you have a good mix of cheeses that includes a variety of types, textures and regions. This way you’re sure to please most of the people, most of the time. A good rule is to have a hard cheese, a soft cheese, a blue cheese and then a cheese that you personally love or that has a story.
- Pair it up: Match your cheeses to your accompaniments. Mix and match textures to highlight the cheeses. Soft cheeses go with crusty crostini and crackers, while hard cheeses are best served with soft accompaniments including jams, fruits or honey.
- Be informed: Find out a little bit about your cheeses and share that information. Tell your guests which cheese is a goat’s cheese, which is a heavy cheese and which is sharp. It’ll help people pick the cheeses they are interested in.
- Easy access: Artful layout is well and good, but it’s best if people don’t feel intimidated by what they’re eating. Special utensils aren’t strictly necessary, but enough knives makes access easy. Rounded blades work for scooping and spreading softer cheese and thin knives work well for cutting crumbly cheese. But if all else fails, just make sure you have knives that are easy to use and that there are enough to go round.
Di Blasi’s final word is also the most important: “Simplicity is the thing. Cheese boards became too fancy for a while, but now it’s coming back to what it used to be: simple. And that’s what it’s supposed to be and when a cheese board is best.”
A hard cheese with a crumbly texture, pecorino is traditionally made of ewe’s milk and has a moderate, creamy, nutty flavour that is a perfect middle ground for a cheese platter. When truffle is added in the maturing process and the earthy flavours complement and enrich the natural nutty flavours of the cheese. It’s a great cheese experience in a mouthful all on its own, but can also be paired with a soft accompaniment like fruit paste, dried fig or sweet relish for a contrast in textures and an additional layer of juxtaposed flavour, making it easy to serve with accompaniments.
English Blue with Annatto:
Blue cheese often divides people. You either love it or hate it, and there is very little middle ground if you opt for a particularly pungent version. But choosing a blue for a cheese board isn’t something to shy away from. Look for a medium blue that won’t overwhelm the rest of the cheeses (and choosing a blue vein that has an unusual talking point can encourage naysayers to give it a go). The choice for this cheese board was a harder blue that has been coloured with annatto seeds to give it a rich, yellow colour that contrasts with the blue vein and brings an added earthiness to the flavours.
Fresh cheeses bring a subtle brightness and milkiness to the cheese board. The texture of a fresh cheese is a pleasantly spongy addition and the young flavours contrast well against more mature, aged and complex cheeses. Choosing a fresh mozzarella that is still briny and wet shakes up the choices and pairing it with acidic and sweet accompaniments, like fresh tomato and sweet basil, will heighten the creamy flavours. When looking for those young flavours, it’s the fresher the better and in this instance the house specialty of mozzarella – made fresh every few days on the premises at Salt Meats Cheese – is perfect.
The name means summer wind and this is a great example of a cheese with a talking point, history and beautiful story beyond the flavours. This is a semi-cured sheep’s cheese that is covered in freshly cut hay from the Veneto Mountains and aged in barrels. The finished product has a distinctive taste that reflects the grasses, wild flowers and herbs of the local area that it has taken in and absorbed during the maturing process. Another firm cheese with a distinctive herby dust on the outside, the flavours are a talking point for those sharing the cheese board, while the ties to the local area make fun trivia.