Want to win friends and influence people with your cheese connoisseurship? Master the cheese plate.
Put together a course of the finest table cheeses and serve it to a group of your favorite foodies—that is, if you don't mind them relentlessly hounding you to liven up every future special occasion with your expert selections.
Buffet-style appetizer cheese boards get messy in a hurry and don't do right by finer cheeses. Serving a well-planned plate at the end of a meal is the only civilized option. "I always serve cheese before or in place of dessert," says Liz Thorpe, cheese consultant par extraordinaire and author of The Cheese Chronicles and a forthcoming reference book. "The level of delight and appreciation from my guests always exceeds expectations."
To concerns about consuming rich cheeses on top of a full meal, Thorpe counters, "With a plate of great cheeses, you eat more slowly and more mindfully. And I believe they aid digestion." Agreed, 1,000 percent.
Where to start? Go to your closest top-drawer cheesemonger and identify a favorite to build around. Stilton was my first pick, and it became the finale for a "Classic Plate." You can also settle on a theme, by country or region (Britain, Oregon); or by type of milk (cow, goat or sheep). If your No. 1 choices aren't available, lean on your cheesemonger for substitutes—in this case, Stevie Burnich, buyer at San Francisco's Cheese Plus, steered my selections.
Creating a harmonious and memorable ensemble, in the proper sequence, is about applying the basics of all food-and-beverage pairings: progression, complement and contrast. All candidates should be gauged both in terms of taste (flavor) and consistency (texture). For each cheese, ask yourself how it will follow the one that precedes it and lead into the next.
Progression: Most sensible plates include at least three, and no more than seven, selections. Almost without exception, the progression runs from milder to stronger. As a rule of thumb, serve no more than 1.5 ounces of each cheese per person. Arrange the slices on a solid-colored plate or board.
Urge all tasters to sample in the prescribed order first. They can jump around afterward if they'd like. If your plate includes one or more blues, forewarn them: Once some of that sharp-tasting mold coats their palates, it's very hard to clear. Offer plenty of bread and water or, better yet, something a little stronger to wash it down—perhaps a gargle of tawny Port or a nice Vin Santo.
Contrast and complement: If the dominant flavor of your first selection is sweet and lactic then you're best served by bringing some sourness and/or saltiness with the next one. If your first cheese is soft, smooth and melting, insert one with a harder consistency to follow.
Contrasting flavors create balance. Salt, the most prevalent flavor in all cheeses, begs to be offset by something sweet. Likewise, sour is the antidote for bitter. In all cases, you should take into consideration the "volume" of flavor: A very salty cheese wants a very sweet drink. Roquefort and Sauternes, for example, is a classic pairing.
Complementary flavors can establish a kind of leitmotif that runs throughout your plate. Floral or caramel notes, for example, may crop up several times, helping connect the dots in your sequence. In my Classic Plate, the salty, creamy flavors of the opening triple-cream were recalled, albeit cranked up several notches and tinged with a strong barnyard accent, in the penultimate stinker.
Alternating textures or consistencies is a good trick for keeping things interesting. Follow a soft cheese with a harder one, and vice versa. Another source of contrast is species—cow, sheep or goat. Within each plate, try playing around with species comparisons, pairing, for example, a cow's milk cheddar or gouda with the same type made from goat's or sheep's milk.
David Gibbons is co-author of Mastering Cheese.