What makes us human? This is a question that’s plagued us since we first thought to ask it. The answer would be of fundamental importance to philosophy, ethics, and just about any pursuit of truth there is. There have been countless suggestions over the years: Our languages? Our use of tools? Our harnessing of fire? However, the closer we look the blurrier the lines between us and everything else appear. Perhaps there is one odorous trail that holds the truth—a sour and fermented scent, a funky barnyard bouquet, a whiff of nutty butter. If we follow our noses to the source we may find that the answer was there all along… Cheese. Milk’s leap towards immortality.
Build a Better Cheese Platter
How to make your cheese plate the star of any party
Just saying “cheese” brings a smile to your face—a fact that has been exploited for decades by the photographers of forced family photos. We must make the most of this golden gift. Now even if the closest thing you've come to a cheese board is a Babybel on a park bench, we're here to help. Let’s delve deep into the strange, sour waters of “cheeseology” and discover the hard-fought secrets of a perfect platter.
The beginnings of cheesemaking
The precise origin of cheesemaking is unknown, but most estimates range from 8000 – 10,000 years ago—the period in which humans started to domesticate plants and animals. The earliest evidence of this is found in the middle east, where wild goats and sheep lived in flocks and were fairly easy to tame. After this, it didn’t take long to realize that the milk of these animals was a nutritious and renewable food source.
Milk that was left in a warm environment for a few days would have curdled. This is because naturally-occurring bacteria feed on its sugar (lactose) and produce lactic acid, which causes the predominant protein (casein) to clump together, trapping some of the milk fats in the process. The resulting substance is then easily separated into solid curds and liquid whey. The whey would have been drunk immediately while the curds would have either been eaten or stored for later use. So, the first human to encounter cheese would probably have feasted on a sort of goat or sheep cottage cheese.
Milk is also curdled by rennet, a complex set of enzymes found in abundance in the digestive tract of young ruminant (cud-chewing) mammals. At the time, milk would have been stored in the skins and stomachs of animals as they were ready-made, reusable containers. Given time, the rennet from the stomachs would have leached into the milk, causing it to form firm and delicious curds—another happy accident that gave us an initial taste of cheese.
Cheesemaking: An overview
One of the very first decisions in cheese production is, of course, what milk to use. It is most commonly made from the milk of cows, goats, and sheep, but the options range from buffalo to yak to reindeer. Even among the same species, the flavors of the milk can vary dramatically according to the geography, climate and grazing habits.
The coagulation, separation, and cutting of the curds
Then the milk is coagulated, by introducing a starter culture of lactic acid bacteria (LAB), and rennet. The starter culture determines the characteristics of the cheese. Once the milk has curdled, the curds and whey are separated. The curds are then cut—the finer the curds the harder and grainier the cheese will become.
Shaping and salting
The curds are then placed into molds of various shapes and sizes and, depending on the cheese, they may be pressed to expel more whey. After this, the cheese is taken out of the mold to be salted or brined, before being taken to a cool place to age.
Aging and the art of affinage
This is the longest and arguably the most important step in defining a cheese. This is where all the flavors of the milk, molds, and bacteria are allowed to fully express themselves. An affineur is the one who controls this aging/maturing/ripening process, and a great one will be able to get a profusion of complex flavors out of the simplest cheese. They will ensure the cheese is kept in the perfect conditions to develop its flavor and know when it is ripe and ready to eat. Remember, age doesn’t matter…. unless you are a cheese.
The basics of building a cheese board
Now you are equipped with some cheese fundamentals, it’s time for you to sharpen your platter skills, so you can carve out a place in your social circle as the cheese connoisseur with a milk-curdling cabaret of colors, scents and savors.
Establish your cheese needs
First, you need to establish what the occasion calls for, as this will bear upon all aspects of your platter. Ask yourself: How many people is the platter for? What do these people like? When are you going to serve it? Is this a main meal, a starter, or a dessert? These are some basics questions which will primarily affect the type of cheese, the amount of cheese and the accompaniments.
In cheesemongers we trust
Sniff out your nearest cheesemonger and start asking questions. Here, of course, I am talking about the local, independent, cattle-hardened, dairy-dabbling cheese veteran. In a pinch you can just visit your local supermarket with a cheese counter, although these can be hit and miss, and you probably won’t find the same passion or expertise.
If you have no clue where to start, find one cheese you like then ask your monger for a selection for a platter. There should be a variety of textures, tastes, colors, shapes. Aim for about 4 or 5 different cheeses (too many may overwhelm the palates and appetites of your guests).
Choose your board and serving utensils
From an old-fashioned wooden chopping board to a piece of driftwood, there is nothing quite as natural-looking as an array of fine cheeses on wood. Make sure it’s hard and nonporous, otherwise it will draw the moisture out of the cheese, leaving you with dry cheese and a smelly, stained board.
A slab of marble or a piece of slate, with their clean, hard, or polished look can beautifully contrast with the natural colours and textures of cheese. Slate also gives you the opportunity to write or draw on the board—if you want to name the cheeses or give your guests something to look at once all the cheese is gone.
The number one rule for cheese serving utensils? Keep your cheese clean. Use a different knife for each piece because no one wants a stinky blue all over their creamy whites!
Spread it out
It is called a ‘spread’ for a reason, so don’t crowd the board. While it’s tempting to go for the social media money shot cheeseboard—the overflowing-cornucopia-look with no spare board to show, piles of nuts like a squirrel’s winter hoard, and a dainty, yet suffocating, sprinkle of rosemary and pomegranate seeds—of course a cheese platter should be for the eyes, but more importantly, it is to be eaten. Your guests don’t want to play an unsolicited game of Jenga, they want an easy route in and out. Give them space, not a headache.
Inform your guests
Your guests will need some tools to navigate the platter, as some cheeses can seem alien and scary at first. If you don’t mind narrating the tale of each cheese throughout the night, then that’s fine—you do you. However, sometimes labels or flags are useful. Or if you don’t want to puncture your cheese, you can write short descriptions and place them around the board.
Storing and serving cheese
The oft-quoted and just as often ignored cardinal sin of cheese storage: plastic wrap. Cheese is alive and it must breathe. It needs air and humidity. It’s best to wrap it in special cheese or wax paper and then seal it in an airtight container or bag, so it can breathe but it doesn’t dry out.
For serving, get the cheese out of the fridge at least an hour before you plan to unveil it and allow it to come to room temperature—cold kills flavor, at least when it comes to cheese.
How much cheese is too much cheese?
Is the board going to be the evening’s belt-bursting centerpiece around which everyone revolves until they bulge enough to break orbit? If so, then a generous guideline amount is 1.75 oz (50 g) of each cheese per person. For example, if you have 6 guests and 5 different cheeses, then each piece should be about 10.5 oz (300 g), totalling around 3 lbs. (1.5 kg) cheese.
For a platter that accompanies other food you can probably halve that and make sure there is about ¾ oz (25 g) of each cheese per person.
All the accompaniments
You need to remember that these are indeed accompaniments—they are the painted backdrop, the interval entertainment, the chauffeurs that safely and silently convey the star (cheese) to the stage (mouth).
As with all good food, this is about balance—try to harmonize the salty, sweet, sour, and bitter. This is easily done by choosing one from each of these categories below.
The backbone of any good cheeseboard—breads and crackers. Here again, I call for simplicity. Keep your bread neutral. A nice fresh baguette, ciabatta, or a light crusty loaf of any sort is the perfect canvas against which the vibrancy of each cheese may shine. The same goes for crackers, keep them plain and simple. Anything overly herby or spicy will overshadow the cheese and could make everything start to taste the same. If you want something with a slightly different dimension, then go for a dried fruit and/or nut bread or cracker.
Fruit and cheese are friends as old as the hills. The sweet fruit helps to cut through the rich salty cheese—adding both texture and color to your platter. You can use fresh or dried, although I normally use one of each.
When it comes to fresh fruit, try and choose what’s in season to ensure optimum quality, but there’s no harm in sticking to the classics: apples, pears, figs and grapes. Fresh, juicy and slightly acidic, they can really bring your palate back to life after loads of creamy cheese.
Dried fruit is definitely less hassle. It’s available all year round and doesn’t run the risk of turning brown. Intensely sweet and chewy, dried fruits pair well with most cheeses. Try dried apricots, figs, or dates.
The shape, crunch, and color of nuts are a great addition to any cheese board and, as many cheeses have nutty tones, they play a naturally complementary role to the star of the show.
Pecans have a subtle sweetness that pairs wonderfully with almost any salty cheese while walnuts have an earthier, drier taste and tend to complement creamy cheeses. Whatever you have will do fine, as just about all nuts work well with cheese from almonds to pistachios.
These are your things like jam, honey, mustards, and chutneys. Some general pairing rules: Sweet jams and honey go well with fresh, soft or blue cheeses; Mustards go well with older, sharper cheeses; Spiced chutneys go well with aged cheeses like cheddar.
Choosing one from each of these categories should ensure great balance of flavor. If you’re going for something more savory, then other things to consider are pickles, olives, and salted nuts. For a sweet board stick to jams, honey, dried fruits, and nuts. Get creative! But try not to distract from your cheese.
Types of cheese
Now the classification of cheese is a rather complex and slippery subject. For these platters, we shall be embracing some more intuitive, if inexact, cheese categories. We’re not chasing taxonomical perfection here, after all cheese boards are an art not a science. We’ve broken it down into 5 groups: fresh, soft, hard, blue and goat. By making sure you choose a combination of these, you’re guaranteed a magical cheese platter.
Fresh cheeses are defined by their age—some are ready to eat almost immediately after being curdled and spoil very quickly. Rindless, white and shiny, these cheeses are very moist, and are variously described as tasting: mild, milky, refreshing, creamy, lemony, sweet, and sour.
Ricotta: Literally translated as “recooked,” ricotta is an Italian whey cheese, meaning it’s made from the reheated whey that’s left over when the milk is curdled in the production of other cheeses. The curds are much smaller and more fragile than casein curds and create a thick and creamy cheese which is milky, mild, and slightly acidic.
Mozzarella: Mozzarella is now a world-renowned cheese that varies from rich and juicy white balls to the cheap, rubbery stuff fit for frozen pizzas alone. For a cheese board there is only one variety to consider, Mozzarella di Bufala Campana. As opposed to a cow’s milk mozzarella, the buffalo milk mozzarella has a much more complex flavor. It should be mild and sweet like aged (but not sour) milk with notes of earth, moss, and new leather. It should be soft and springy and ooze milky whey when cut. A real game-changer for those who think they like mozzarella.
Burrata: This is another cheese of Italian origin, similar in its production to mozzarella. It is most often made from cow’s milk and sometimes buffalo. It is spun and stretched and then formed into a pocket, which is then filled with mozzarella curds and a fresh whey cream, and to finish it is tied in a knot to seal everything inside. The center is almost liquid and bursts when you cut into it, leaving you with a moist, mild, sweet, and buttery cheese.
With yielding textures, ranging from rubbery to runny, soft cheeses are generally ripened from between three weeks to three months depending on the cheese. These cheeses develop rinds of varying colors and their tastes range from buttery wild mushrooms to pungent smoky farmyards. They are often divided between those that have a bloomy rind and those that have a washed-rind, also referred to as soft-ripened and smear-ripened respectively.
Époisses de Bourgogne: Époisses de Bourgogne, commonly just Époisses, is a washed rind cheese made from cow’s milk. It takes its name from the village in Burgundy, where in the 16th Century, Cistercian monks are said to have first created it. While ripening, the cheese is washed several times with a mixture of brine and Marc de Bourgogne, which is a local pomace brandy (brandy made from the skins, pulp, seeds, and stems of grapes left over from pressing). This helps develop its moist orange-red rind and its meaty sweet, nutty, and salty flavor.
Reblochon: Since the 13th century this cheese has been made in the Alpine pastures of the Thônes valley in the Haute-Savoie region of France, but it was done so in secrecy for hundreds of years. The farmers had to pay a tax to the landowners based on the milk yield of their cattle, so they would partially milk their cows for the tax inspection, and then go back to reblocher (an old Savoie word meaning to ‘remilk’ or ‘pinch the cow’s udder again’). This second milking yielded less milk, but it was very rich and creamy and ideal for making cheese. The final product has a delicate cellar scent and a creamy and supple texture that is somewhat fruity with a nutty aftertaste. Great if you ever need a delicious soft cheese and a justification for tax-dodging at the same time.
Camembert: Camembert, along with brie, is probably one of the most famous French cheeses. One of the most important factors in its achieving global popularity came in 1890, when a French engineer, M. Ridel, created the characteristic wooden (traditionally poplar) box in which the cheese could be easily stored and transported all over the world. The box, as well as the bloomy white rind and small, round shape of the cheese are now instantly recognizable. Made from cow’s milk, it has a gentle aroma of mold and mushrooms, a soft, creamy texture, and an intensely buttery and earthy flavor.
Taleggio: This cow’s milk washed-rind cheese dates back to the 10th Century and is named after Val Taleggio an alpine valley in Lombardy, Italy. It comes in orange-pink squares that exude a yeasty and fermented-mountain-flora scent, but has a milder, creamy taste of sweet and tangy fruits.
These cheeses are typically firm in comparison to other cheeses, but textures range from crumbly to flexible to brittle. The oldest of the cheese varieties, they can be matured for years and have robust, complex flavors.
Red Leicester: Named after the city of Leicester in England, this cow's milk cheese is similar to cheddar, but is easily distinguished by its tangerine color, resulting from annatto coloring. When young it is still fairly dense, waxy and smooth with a sweet nuttiness, but as it matures it becomes crunchier and has a more robust, tangy caramel taste.
Comté: Comté is one of the most popular French cheeses and it has been made in small village-based dairies, or fruitières, in the Franche-Comté region for over 1000 years. It is recognizable by its thin beige rind, and pale-yellow interior which is smooth, supple and dense. Another cow's milk cheese with a complex and rich flavor that varies with notes ranging from leather, pepper, plums, fudge, and hazelnut.
Amber Mist: This cheese balances the creamy tang of a great aged cheddar with the warming, smoky and slightly sweet tones of a Scotch whisky. It comes in a bright orange wax rind, which is easy to remove, and contrasts nicely with the pale ochre cheese inside.
Pecorino Romano: This is one of Italy’s oldest cheeses, with a recipe that is thousands of years old. In 100 BCE it was described by Marcus Terentius Varro as part of the essential rations of the Roman legions. It is dense, crumbly, and crunchy with a salty tang and the typical lanolin sweetness of a sheep’s milk cheese.
Mimolette: This is a Dutch-influenced cheese made in the North of France around the city of Lille. It is made from cow’s milk and produced in a similar way to Edam but is also colored with annatto. It has a striking resemblance to a cantaloupe melon and makes a great visual impact on any board. It has slightly sharp and intensely fruity and nutty flavor, which grows more robust as it ages.
Parmigiano Reggiano: A cheese that needs no introduction, strong, rich, fruity, and slightly sweet, every bite is a taste of Italy—‘The King of Cheeses’ belongs on any good cheese board.
Defined by the veins and pockets of mold that travel through them, blue cheese are not always strictly blue, they can carry molds of various hues from blue to grey, green to black. They have rinds that range from moist to crusty, with textures from dense and gritty to creamy and sticky—all with a taste that is to some degree salty, spicy, with a metallic tang.
Gorgonzola Dolce/Piccante: Claimed by some to be the oldest blue cheese there is, Gorgonzola is a cow’s milk cheese that is soft and crumbly with irregular streaks and pockets of blue-green mold, which gives it a sharp tang that cuts through its rich creaminess. Dolce is moister, milder and sweeter than Piccante which is slightly firmer and more pungent. This is mainly due to their age; Dolce is matured for about 2 months whereas Piccante can be aged for 3 months or more.
Fourme d’Ambert: This cheese can be distinguished by its cylindrical shape and a stone-like blue-grey rind. It is one of the milder-tasting blues, with a fruity woodland aroma and a smooth and somewhat supple texture. A great all-rounder that pairs well with sweet and savory, and good gateway cheese for those who normally recoil from the world of stinky blues.
Montagnolo: This is a much more modern cheese from Germany. It’s a triple crème cheese (meaning extra cream has been added to the milk), which results in something that’s intensely creamy and decadent, but with a nice bite of blue. It is soft and buttery with a coating of beautiful white or grey mold.
Stilton: Another world-famous blue cheese, this time from England. With a distinctive cylindrical shape and a natural edible grey-brown crust, encasing a creamy golden interior with jagged blue streaks emanating from its center, Stilton is rich, mellow, and slightly spicy.
Roquefort: This is an ancient French sheep’s milk cheese with and open and porous rind and blue mold that fans out to its edges, punctuating the creamy cheese with a mouth-watering tang.
These cheeses unsurprisingly are all made from goat’s milk. Ranging from fresh and creamy to aged and crumbly, they have a tart and earthy flavor and in their more potent varieties are described as being ‘funky’, ‘gamey,’ or ‘barnyardy’.
Crottin de Chavignol: This cheese takes its name from Chavignol, a village in the Loire valley in France. However, there are differing stories as to where the word Crottin comes from. One explanation comes from the French word crotte which means dung. This is because as it ages, the cheese gets browner and more wrinkly and it comes much closer to resembling animal droppings. You can choose when to to tell your guests this story. It can be eaten at various stages of maturity, when it is young it has a white rind is tender, nutty, and piquant. As it ages it becomes darker, harder and crumblier, with a more assertive gamey flavor.
Sainte-Maure de Touraine: Another classic from the Loire Valley, named after a small town in the province of Touraine. This distinctive log-shaped cheese has a rind dusted with wood ash and is mottled with fine and fuzzy blue mould as well as patches of grey, pink, and yellow. It also has a straw running through the middle of it, which helps the cheese keep its shape during its production, and also signals that it has been made by an artisan. When sliced the dappled grey of the rind is strikingly contrasted with the pure white interior. It has a musky walnut fragrance, a slightly grainy texture, and a fresh acidic flavor when young, which becomes nuttier and saltier as it ages.
La Tur: This Italian cheese is a blend of cow’s, sheep’s and goat’s milk. It is a delicate, soft, and moist cheese that is wrapped like a cupcake and put in a plastic box to protect it. The rind is wrinkled and a light straw yellow color, it has the sweetness of cream and butter, followed by a finish that is slightly acidic and yeasty. This a balanced and accessible cheese, perhaps a good gateway goat for those who are wary of funky barnyards.
3 country-specific cheese plate ideas
Using the selection of cheese above, we created some diverse, beautiful, and flavorsome boards inspired by the cheese-loving countries of France, Italy, and England.
A belting British board with Stilton, Mature Cheddar, Red Leicester, and Amber Mist, with some zingy pickled onions, marinated olives, and slices of sweet fresh pear. Simple, rustic and punchy.
A fragrant French board of Fourme d’Ambert, Sainte-Maure de Touraine, Crottin de Chavignol, Mimolette, and Camembert, with dried apricots and fresh grapes, all orbiting the deliciously decadent honeycomb in the centre. Perfect for a sophisticated soirée fromage.
Here we have a bold Italian board of Burrata, Parmigiano Reggiano, La Tur, Taleggio, and Gorgonzola Piccante, accompanied by fresh figs, apples, grapes, and fig mustard. A tasteful tour of Italy that leaves no tongue unturned.
We have given you the theory, but to be a platter-master you need to get hands on. So get out there and cheese it!
Published on December 20, 2018