Carol M. Bareuther
Say the words ‘cheese and crackers’ and fond memories often come to mind. Maybe it’s of one of Grandma’s wooden plates set with bite-sized squares of tooth-picked cheddar, or a baseball size pecan-crusted pimento cheese ball, or a red waxed Gouda with a party-starting wedge already carved, each surrounded by crackers and served before holiday meals. Or maybe it’s of a 1980s-era lunchbox when this combo became conveniently cool paired with ham, turkey and even cookies under brand names like Lunchables.
Recently, however, pairing cheese with other ingredients has undergone an upscaling. Images of artfully arranged cheeseboards, and sister fare such as charcuterie platters, have taken social media by storm receiving as many or more ‘likes’ as those of movie stars. Today, building these edible works of art may inspire more trepidation rather than anticipation. Relax, say the experts. It’s not that difficult to create inspired cheeseboards for selling in supermarket delis.
“When it comes to building a cheeseboard, in my opinion, there are no rules,” says Nat Belkov, the design lead, and creative content manager for Murray’s Cheese, a New York-headquartered artisanal cheese and specialty foods wholesaler and retailer. “I try to think outside of the box and encourage our customers to do the same. There’s no way to know that something doesn’t work as a pairing until you try. Often, you’ll discover something you never would’ve dreamed would work so well together. And what’s more pleasurable than sharing an experience like that—or a new discovery—with those you love?!”
Here are six basic tips to build an innovative cheeseboard.
1. Select the cheese or cheeses.
“I recommend choosing a variety of cheeses either based on texture (hard, soft, fresh, bloomy rind) or based on a variety of milks (cows, goat, sheep, etc.). Three types of cheeses are the perfect number if you’re entertaining,” says MacKenzie Smith, a two-time Food Network champion, cookbook author, cheese expert, and executive chef based in New Smyrna Beach, FL.
Or take a different approach. Perhaps highlight a region in France like the Loire Valley by featuring a flight of soft-ripened goat’s milk cheeses with various rind formations and textures, suggests Jessica Sennett, a cheese specialist and Brooklyn, NY-based brainchild behind the Cheese Grotto, a device that extends the life of cheeses by acting like a mini cheese cave. “Or source cheeses that pair best with beer: a clothbound cheddar, a funky semi-firm washed rind and a blue.”
Know your audience. Understand what’s too funky for some customers or on the other hand, where some might want to step outside the box a bit and be more daring.
“Maybe choose something sensorially soft – Chabichou Du Poitou from the Deux-Sevres region of France for the minerally luscious and lactic goat lovers, button mushroom and churned butter-like Robiola Bosina for double cream brie lovers looking to try something different, or the deceptively approachable and supremely smooth Brebirousse d’Argental for a pop of carrot-orange color on your board,” says Murray’s Cheese’s Belkov. “Or go to the other end of the spectrum in terms of texture and even taste. Opt for salty-sweet Romano, oniony funky Scharfe Maxx Extra, deeply savory Montgomery’s Cheddar from Neal’s Yard or Grafton’s toasty caramel-like Shepsog for those that love a crystalline crunch.”
2. Choose the ideal type and number of accompaniments
Belkov of Murray’s Cheese, for example, likes to have at least one or two charcuterie items on a board when sharing with three to five people, unless his guests are averse to meat. For the most approachable board, he selects a hard salami like Genoa, soppressata or Calabrese and slices it thin before arranging it on the board. Beyond that, salty Prosciutto di Parma, peppery speck, and bresaola or culatello and Iberico are ideal for those not afraid of the more complex pork and decadently rich flavors inherent to these crafted cured meats.
Beyond this, Belkov recommends at least one pantry-based pairing item per cheese on the board. Crackers and hunks of baguette are great vehicles so choosing a universally-enjoyed one will bode well for the entirety of the board. Having at least one pickled item is always wise to serve as a palate cleanser, plus the acid balances richer-tasting cheeses and meats. Cornichons and olives are the universal workhorses of a cheeseboard, but wilder choices like pickled piquillo peppers, carrots, asparagus or other pickled vegetables and antipasti work well, too.
Though super abundant, intricately set cheeseboards can be a feast for the eyes, they may not be the most realistic version of what someone can routinely make in a home kitchen on a daily or weekly basis, says the Cheese Grotto’s Sennett. “As cheese experts don’t want to relegate cheeseboards solely to special occasions, having one accompaniment per cheese is a great rule of thumb. It’s also good to select three accompaniments that will bring out different characteristics in the different cheese types on the board. This is so that as they are plated alongside each other, there is room to explore.”
3. Mix sweet and savory items in the tastiest way
For instance, roasted or salted nuts and dried fruits can complement a variety of cheeses so they’re always a safe bet. Savory spreads and chutneys such as roasted tomato jam, red wine-stewed onions or artichoke spread complement milder cheeses. Sweeter jams are a great addition to a board that includes goat cheese, certain blues, or even, in the case of apple butter, a good savory-sweet cheddar.
“If I’m mixing sweet and savory accompaniments on one board, I will often feature one sweet item, one sweet-savory item (like a tomato and white sultana chutney from Le Bon Magot) and one fully savory item like Dequmana olives. The three accompaniments will facilitate the spectrum of a tasting experience on a board. Fresh fruit, like citrus, can also help tie together sweet and savory components on a board,” adds Sennett.
4. Consider decorative accompaniments
The finishing touch of fresh herbs, for example, speaks to the agricultural landscape of cheesemaking and gives any cheeseboard both a fresh and finished feel. This might be a small sprig of thyme added to elevate a soft-ripened goat cheese.
“Flowers are a huge trend right now, but I always get concerned when I see carnations or other flowers that are sprayed with pesticides and other chemicals on a cheeseboard and touching the food that you’re about to eat. With that said, unless it’s edible flowers from a known source, I always stay stick with fresh herbs,” says Smith.
5. Place cheeses and other ingredients ideally on the board
The Cheese Grotto’s Sennett plates cheeses first, from left to right or clockwise, in the order of intensity. Though a cheeseboard can be enjoyed from any angle, she says, thinking of the tasting order of the cheeses is a great way to start. She then plates the accompaniments alongside the cheese for which makes the best pairing. Using nuts and nicely-folded charcuterie in a river-like effect along the board to tie all the elements together is a great trick. Having smaller ramekins for honeys, jams and olives can help define the overall look of the board.
“Cheese tastes best when served at room temperature. So, you can set up your cheeseboard in advance, if desired, wrap it and refrigerate. Then take it out of the refrigerator an hour before serving. This also makes hard cheeses easier to cut. Although cheeses such as brie or Gouda slice best when chilled,” says Michael Landis, an American Cheese Society Certified Cheese Professional, food and beverage educator, author, TV news cheese expert and owner of Michael Landis LLC, in Lutz, FL.
6. The Board need not be a board
“We often teach private virtual cheeseboard classes at Cheese Grotto, and we encourage folks to use what they have: butcher paper, cutting board, a plate, a round board, a long board. Part of the fun of building a board is to explore different surfaces. One of our top teachers built a cheeseboard on stones from the perimeter of a lake to make a ripe wheel look like a waterfall. So, my advice here is to not limit your creativity,” says Sennett.
SPECIAL OCCASION IDEAS
Take the basics above and tweak them to build themed cheeseboards for seasonal and special occasions.
“There has recently been an emergence of cheeseboards pre-built into Tupperware that are ideal for picnics and tailgating,” says Cheese Grotto’s Sennett. “The main challenge is to make sure items don’t get jostled in transit, so the accompaniments must be able to fit compactly into the storage receptacle. We recently built a Tupperware cheeseboard with Vermont Creamery Bijou, Stag cheddar, olives, strawberries, salami Milano roses and Raincoast Crisps.”
For a Halloween Board, Murray’s Cheese’s Belkov recommends playfully pairing lowbrow and highbrow chocolates and other confections with a fudge-like Point Reyes Blue Cheese or crunchy caramelly Mimolette.
Or, for winter gatherings, Belkov adds, opt for snowy white cheeses like double creme brie, Fromager D’Affinois, La Tur or St. Marks and build a board with fruit jams, rye crackers, roasted walnuts or pecans, and chocolate-covered almonds. Style it with rosemary sprigs, sage leaves, cinnamon sticks and halved pomegranates that bare their juicy seeds like jewels embedded in the fruit.Celebrate summer in winter or a destination nuptial with a wow-type of cheeseboard akin to what Smith created a few years ago. “It was for a ‘local Florida’ themed wedding. We made huge grazing tables with local cheeses, Florida-based honeys, fruits, Bradley’s Country sausage from Tallahassee, locally-made crackers and more. It had boiled peanuts, pickled okra, satsuma oranges and so many other great treats that are entirely from Florida. It was amazing and shows the endless creativity possible with a cheeseboard.” DB