Leaving vegans out of the picture for a moment, I would say that a goodly proportion of people dig on a bit of cheese now and then. Some vegetarians can go a little overboard on occasion - I know a few portly, and yet diet conscious non-meat eaters that could do with a little more topinambour, and somewhat less tilsit.
This single main fact here is hard to counter - people love cheese. So where does this leave the cheese plate? Aren't they the stuff that the kid next door's freestylin' parents served up every other Saturday night during the 1980's along with Barry Manilow LP's? Most likely yes - but they weren't really cheese plates to be perfectly honest, they were more akin to cubes of matured cow-juice served on shockingly lurid plastic plates.
So then, cheese plates are out? … molto passé? - highly Willis? Or are they? If you hopped aboard the lactose train back at the start of this write up, then you will realise that cheese is an ancient - perhaps even the oldest - method of preserving milk for extended storage. It is here for the long haul - longer than Windows XP; in fact, longer even than the Apple Lisa. Cheese plates aren't going to disappear anytime soon, so the least we can do is make them classy and desirable.
So what exactly is a cheese plate, and what is the whole damn idea behind it? Put simply, a cheese plate differs from other lactose-based repasts, such as a ploughman's lunch, antipasto and tapas, because it is most often a separate course - not a meal unto itself. A cheese plate will more likely than not form part of the make-up of a multi-course meal. In the United Kingdom, this will traditionally be the final course - taken after sweets, and quite often with vintage port. In France (and countries influenced by their cuisine) the cheese may well be taken earlier - perhaps just prior to the dessert, and sometimes even before this. These wicker-bound trays of goodness are known in France as plateaux de fromage.
Enough about tradition I hear you bellow, how the hell can I take this highly unfashionable idea and bring it kicking and screaming into the naughties? Easily. First decide what you need your cheese platter to do. Is it the final course in a long and complex meal? Or is it pushing the boundries to be a light meal unto itself, served with afternoon drinks and voracious friends? Perhaps it is just a filler - gut luggage to prevent your guests getting too drunk before the rest of the food is served. Each case will require a different approach.
A stand-alone platter is perhaps the easiest to assemble. There is no harm in serving a wide variety of cheeses, and there is less of a requirement to ensure that each cheese complements one another. This simply is a light snack to be taken with drinks, most people will find one style of cheese they like and stick with it anyway. Seems pretty simple right? Is there anything you need to remember? Yep. As with all cheese plates - perhaps more importantly here than others - make sure that there is enough grain-based accompaniments. This might be sliced bread, lavosh, crackers, crisp bread or something along those lines. These will always run out first - so don't skimp here. You will also want to make sure to provide accompaniments to the cheese, in the form of fruit. Sliced fresh pears and apples are the classic combo - as is good quality dried fruit - this is something to experiment with.
With such a wide array of cheeses, it is pretty hard to give a concise drinks recommendation. Most likely, your guests will be imbibing a wide variety of refreshers in any case. The best advice is to not take things too seriously, and just let things flow.
Moving right along to the pre-dinner cheese plate. This one requires a little more planning and forethought. Consider first the meal that will follow it. Will it be more than one course? Will it be light and simple, or heavy and complex? A lighter meal opens the scope up considerably. You can then afford to serve up richer cheeses such as Brie, Camembert and Bouche D'affinois. A heavier meal will prefer simpler and lighter cheeses to start - something like a goat's cheese chabichou, or perhaps a marinated feta, which is normally a ewe's milk cheese - but can be crafted with goat's milk as well.
Another consideration is the drinks your guests will be taking. If the pre-dinner tipple is the traditional champagne, or perhaps a light-bodied white wine, then your cheese choices will need to be a little limited. Leave blue vein cheeses right out for a start, which will play havoc with delicate whites as well as the bead of a good sparkling wine. White mould ripened cheeses are cool here - but try and keep the fat level down (this isn't easy, I know) Eschew rich brie, camembert, double and triple cream style cheeses. Kytren cheese factors in Western Australia makes an ash-matured rondelle that is a good style to aim for. A circle of goat's cheese is rolled in the ash of burned grape vine clippings. This black circle is then inoculated with a Brie mold that softens the firm goats cheese centre as it matures. This bold cheese dances in just the right manner with dry sparkling and white wines.
Remember, these cheeses are being served immediately prior to a meal, so be wary of overwhelming the palate with too many flavours early on, however - bold flavours do work well, because the hungry diners' palates are in explore mode. Keep a tight, small plate of forthright cheeses - in a similar style. This will entertain your guests' palates, but not tire them prematurely. Of all the cheese plates, this one should be the most frugal - don't let your guests fill up on cheese, only to miss out on the main event. Figure on roughly 50 gm (2 oz) of cheese per head, while a stand-alone plate may call for up to 100 gm (4 oz) of cheese per person. As before, keep the bread or crackers stocked, and provide a trim selection of fresh fruit. Pears in the cooler months and peaches in the warmer.
At the end (post dessert)
The most traditional (Anglo Saxon anyway) cheese plate is the one brought at the very end of a meal. The diner may well have already polished off up to 5 or more courses. Tummies are full, and palates are approaching an overloaded jadedness. The biggest trap you can fall into here is to serve too great a variety of cheeses. At this stage, most tongues just don't want to play any more. Do not confound the resting palate, work with it. The best idea here is to serve one style of cheese, and several great examples of it. Grab 3 different cheddars; Quicke's Farm, King Island and Pyengana - or perhaps 3 different Italian hard cheeses; like pecorino, pepato and Parmigiano Reggiano. Fruit, as before, plays an integral role in the post-meal cheese plate - but in this case, freshness is not the effect you are after, instead more complex flavours like dried and glace fruit will complement the closing of a meal with a minimum of fuss.
Another important consideration, most multi-course meals will wind up with a sweet wine of some sort - be that a fortified style such as port, Muscat or tokay - or a sweet white wine such as sauternes (Otherwise known as noble rot, late harvest, botrytitis affected or cordon cut). The residual sweetness in these wines play directly into the hands of blue mold cheeses such as Roquefort and Stilton. I remember thinking the pairing of a salty blue cheese and a sweet white wine more than odd the first time around. Misgivings of this sort will be soon dispelled however - blues and dessert wines are one of the most effortless, elegant and indisputably perfect wine and cheese parings around.
Gentlemen, select your cheeses
All of the above is fairly sound advice, but it is entirely reliant on one simple, yet crucial factor. The quality of the cheeses themselves - you simply have to get the best stuff you can lay your hands on. Start by looking for a good fromagerie, specialty food store or delicatessen in your area. If these retailers are up to snuff, they will not only be able to sell you cheeses that are in peak condition, but they will also be able to recommend a selection dependent on what sort of soiree you are planning - be it pre, post or instead of a meal. If this fails, you may need to try the (gah) supermarket. Some supermarkets these days carry a range of mid to large-scale production (boutique) cheeses. These are rarely as good as those a specialist cheese vendor will sell you, but still trounce all over those bricks of generic "tasty" cheese found a few aisles across.
You can buy an alarming array of crackers intended solely to provide support for a lump of cheese. Some of these are great, and some are just…well pretty lousy. Kurrajong Kitchens, based west of Sydney, Australia, makes a wonderfully crisp lavosh that is the perfect all-purpose cheese partner. Light, neutral flavours and a crisp, thin texture makes them moreish, yet unobtrusive at the same time. I serve these with all cheeses at the restaurant - if you can find them, I urge you to do the same. Failing that, a light, neutral flavour water cracker will be the most suitable suspect.
Fresh bread can also work in many cases - there is however, one crucial caveat - you simply have to use great bread. Put it this way, if the bread was sold to you in a plastic wrapper, try another approach. Good bakery sourdough, or wood fired Italian loaves, sliced thinly enough, can make a sublime match. If the bread is a day or two old, you can try making your own crisp bread. Select a long and sharp, serrated bread knife, and cut very thin slices from the loaf. Lay these on a baking sheet and cook in a very slow oven, 90° C (170° F) for about 30 minutes, or until they are completely dry and crisp. These can be stored in an airtight container for up to 2 weeks.
Right, made it thus far? Then you deserve a timy amount of recompense. Here is a quick and dirty guide to what cheeses love which wines.
Unripened, fresh cheeses
Ricotta, tomme, neufchatel, feta, mascarpone, etc.
Unwooded white wines,
such as semillon, riesling,
colomabard and sauvignon blanc.
Cooked curd cheeses
Mozzarella, bocconcini, haloumi, scarmorza etc
Medium weight white wines, lightly wooded.
semillion, sauvignon blanc,
pinot grigio, some lighter chardonnays
White mould ripened cheeses
Camembert, Brie, Bouche D'Affinois, Triple-creams etc.
Toasty, dry sparkling wines, showing some bottle age,
Chardonnays (and other whites) possessing
some malolactic influence. Very sympathetic with the creaminess of the cheeses.
Lighter reds, gentle pinot noir and rose.
Washed rind cheeses
Munster, Port Salut, Mungabareena.
Definetly red wine territory here;
a medium weight shiraz,
or a powerful and
structured pinot noir
Goats milk cheeses
Does vary according to style,
but a grassy and herbal
sauvignon blanc can make a
beautiful (if demanding of your
attention) combination. As can a floral
and dry gewurztraminer.
Cheddar, parmesan, tilsit, asiago, etc
Most of these harder cheeses can take the
structure of a full-bodied red wine,
like a shiraz, cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel,
durif, and merlot. If your cheese is well matured,
such as an eighteen month old cheddar,
open a carefully aged full-bodied bottle
of red wine and watch the sparks fly
Gorgonzola, roquefort, Blue Castello, etc
This is strongly the domain of sweet wines;
Sauternes, Botrytis affected wines,
port, tokay, vin santo etc.
So long, and thanks for all the cheese
The success of a cheese plate is directly linked to the quality of the raw materials. The better quality cheeses you use, the simpler (and thus more cunningly elegant) the entire affair can be. A bloated platter of numerous ordinary cheeses will never be remembered. On the other hand, a perfect piece of Parmigiano reggiano, aged for 24 months, served with a tantalizingly ripe pear and a ten year old Barossa Valley shiraz, exudes such understated and simple elegance that your guests won't realise that they are having the time of their lives until the meal is well and truly over.
Wrap it up, and stick it back in the fridge
Find great cheese, open great wine, invite cool friends, but above all - relax. This is about down time and hedonism after all. Don't get panicky that everything needs to be just right - simply buy the best you can afford and keep things simple.
- Ok, I spend several hours and over 2000 words trying to capture of essence of simple joy that cheese can bring - and that sneaky little bugger mkb sums it up in just a few sentences. Read the following - for it is sage commentary.
"....When I was in France we usually had some Roquefort, something along the lines of camembert, duc de coeur, or brie, along with chevre (sometimes) and/or another hard cheese with a rock-like outside, and typically a novelty cheese like a soft cream with walnuts or a less hard cream cheese covered in black pepper. We always drank the same brand of Bordeaux and/or rose (Gris was the name iirc) along with fresh bread..."
"...This was never a fancy thing, though, just part of dinner..."