A common question we get on the cheese counter is about how to put together a cheese plate, be it for a cocktail party or as a dinner course. There aren’t any rules per se – after all, it really comes down to what you will enjoy eating! That said, when customers ask, we generally offer the following recommendations:
– It’s usually nice to include at least one cheese from each of the three major milk categories: cow, sheep and goat.
– Similarly, we like to include a variety of textures. For example, one might choose something smooth and spreadable (think Camembert, Brie or a chèvre), something semi-soft (for example, Vendéen Bichonne or Ardrahan) and something on the firmer side (Comté, Calcagno or a Boerenkaas).
– Color is also something to consider when designing your platter. We try to choose cheeses that are visually diverse – from the pure white of a bloomy-rinded triple-crème, to the black of an ash-coated chèvre, to the orange hue of a butterscotchy, aged Gouda. It is also worth thinking about what you’ll be serving your cheese on. The goal is to create a visual contrast between the serving surface and the cheeses themselves. At the shop, we generally use black slates when putting together a platter. At the end of 2009, we started selling Brooklyn Slate Co. cheese slates which are really beautiful (and dishwasher safe!). A bonus to the Brooklyn Slates – they not only provide a great contrast for your cheeses but, included with each slate, is soapstone chalk which can be used to write the names of each cheese directly on the slate itself. Last Christmas, several of my fellow mongers purchased these slates as gifts for others and, in most cases, bought one (or two!) for themselves as well. The Brooklyn slates come in black and grey but are also available in red and green.
– While keeping color, texture and milk type in mind, we generally recommend including between 3-5 cheeses on your platter. Three cheeses allows for a good level of diversity and five cheeses ensures that you can hit all of the major milk groups while giving yourself room to include something a bit more funky – a washed rind or a blue cheese, for example. The reason we tend to cap the platter at five cheeses is because, if you have any more than that, it gets a bit overwhelming for the palate.
– When figuring the total amount of cheese you need, consider whether you’re serving it in place of a meal, as a single course or as an accompaniment to a course. We generally assume 3-4 ounces per person for a lighter serving and about 6-8 ounces per person for a main course. Folks often wonder if it is more “correct” to serve your cheese before or after a meal and, if it is being served as part of a dinner, before or after the dessert course. Traditions vary widely so my inclination is to do what works best in the context of your event. For example, if you are serving an apple dessert in the fall, it might be nice to serve a cheddar-themed platter at the same time as dessert. Or, if you are assembling your guests for a cocktail hour prior to dinner, it might be nice to serve your cheese platter then. If, instead, folks have more time to stick around after the meal, you might make the platter an after dinner treat!
– In terms of cutting the cheese: if you are holding a sit-down dinner party you might prefer to pre-cut a cheese plate for each guest. However, if you are presenting everything on one platter, it is usually a good idea to let folks cut their own cheese. What you might want to do is cut one or two small pieces to show folks how to start cutting each cheese. When cutting into a cheese, the idea is that everybody eating it should get an equal amount of rind and paste (the inside part of the cheese). Depending on the shape of your cheese, the way you cut will vary. Rounds of cheese can be cut like a pie. Wedges get a little bit trickier but the same principle applies – ideally, everyone gets the same amount of each part of the cheese. Once you cut a sample piece or two, they can be artistically laid next to the larger hunk of cheese and hopefully your guests will take the cue as to how to continue from there.
– If you are letting your guests cut from a larger piece of cheese, good cheese knives can be both attractive and helpful in avoiding awkward cutting moments! With harder cheeses, we recommend providing a sturdy knife that won’t flex when cutting – for this purpose, we like Saladini’s grana knife. With soft and creamy cheeses, a knife that more closely resembles a butter knife, such as Saladini’s spatola, is appropriate. If the texture of your cheese is soft but sticky (as is the case with Brie), you’ll need a knife with a thin blade (or one of those knives with holes in the blade). While you don’t need a knife for every type of cheese, it is generally advisable to give the blue cheese a knife all its own so that the spicy blue molds aren’t shared amongst the other cheeses!
– When to assemble your platter? This will depend somewhat on how warm you like to keep your home and the time of year. Essentially, you want the cheese at “room temperature” when you serve it. If the cheese is too cold, you will not get as much flavor. On the other hand, if the cheese is too warm, you run the risk of serving it sweaty or excessively runny. We recommend taking your cheese out about an hour before you plan to serve it. If it is the middle of a hot summer, you will need less time and if it is a cold winter and you like to keep your home chilly, allow a bit more time.
If you are looking for ideas on what to pair with your cheeses, check out our blog post on cheese accompaniments and pairings. For more information about storing your cheese, click here. And, of course, let us know if you have any questions!