Clockwise from bottom: Cranberry Chipotle Cheddar by Carr Valley,
Tomme Fleur Verte, Cahill Porter and Rogue River Bleu.
Cheese board and cheese selection provided by Cheese Course, Boca Raton.
Libby Volgyes/The Coastal Star
Cahill Porter cheese
Cranberry Chipotle Cheddar
Tomme Fleur Vert cheese
By Jan Norris
Hosts who are tight on time or who prefer hit-and-mingle cocktail party food would do well with an old favorite, updated — the cheese board.
A spread of cheeses, crackers, fruits and nuts is a simple way to please a variety of tastes and diets — and possibly surprise some tastebuds.
The bonus: no cooking.
With literally thousands of cheeses available from around the world, an infinite number of combinations can make up a board.
While you could rack up a bill with exotic cheeses, a few interesting ones and a few familiar ones will satisfy most partygoers.
To simplify it for the average host, we talked to the experts at cheese and wine shops.
Brooke Bretillina, a supervisor at the Cheese Course in Boca Raton, said cheeses can be chosen by country, texture, sharpness, animal or flavor profile. She recommends a wide mix to satisfy a mixed crowd.
“You can definitely have a traditional cheese for the not-so-adventurous,” she said. A good Parmigiano Reggiano is a favorite hard cheese, while a burrata, a creamy mozzarella, can be a neutral, if salty flavor for those who are wary of stronger cheeses.
A French brie is the most popular creamy cheese for the season. Dress up the brie with cranberry or raspberry relish or a tapenade to add a holiday touch, she said.
Throw in at least one stronger cheese out of the ordinary. A Rogue River Bleu cheese from Oregon has a balanced bite. A cranberry-chipotle cheddar from Wisconsin also has a spicy and sweet finish — it would make a good pairing with beers.
A fresh cheese to consider is Tomme Fleur Verte — a soft French goat milk cheese coated in tarragon. Goat milk cheeses can be mild to strong; for a cheese board, a mild is a smarter choice.
New cheeses from Cheese Course are a variety of cheddars from Vermont — a Tea Hive Cheddar, rubbed with tea leaves; Big John’s Cheddar, rubbed with Cajun seasonings to give the cheese a distinct spiciness, and the Carely Buzzed, a mix of espresso and lavender rubbed on the rind. “It’s unusual, but it’s really delicious,” she said.
Pairing cheese and wine
Lindsey Gastarini, one of the owners of the Wine Wave in Delray Beach, puts out a cheese board for her shop’s guests who are there for wine tastings.
“We offered a rosemary goat cheese (a domestic goat cheese), a cave-aged cheddar from Spain, a Manchego (a firm, crumbly sheep’s milk cheese from Spain) and a cranberry-studded Wensleydale (a semi-hard white cheese from England).”
With these, she put out a variety of white and red wines. “Each cheese affects the flavors of the wines differently. A good rule of thumb is bolder reds with pungent and salty cheeses. The floral notes of some whites come through with goat cheese, for instance.”
Using geography as a base for wines also helps match cheeses and vinos. Rioja, a bold red from Spain, pairs well with a Manchego. A lighter wine — the just-released Beaujolais, for instance — pairs well with an unaged fresh cheese.
Add a little fruit or nuts
Fruits, nuts and spreads, both savory and sweet, can enhance the cheeses.
“We have candied walnuts — they’re good to balance the saltiness and add a bit of sweet,” Bretillina said. Roasted almonds and dried fruits are good with spreadable cheeses, but avoid salted nuts as most cheese is already salty. A slice of fresh honeycomb is a nice, different addition to a cheese board, especially when salty sheep cheeses are served.
The Cheese Course sells a variety of fruit spreads like raspberry relish, but good quality fig or apricot preserves round out a cheese board. Fresh fruits such as sliced apples, pears and bunches of grapes are traditional pairings.
Choose non-flavored crackers — either multigrain or plain water crackers — to avoid overwhelming the cheese flavor. Crusty bread cubes and flatbreads also can be used.
Sliced, cured meats and fish spreads are sometimes offered with cheeses, but these also can overwhelm flavors; experts say use them judiciously.
Present and serve
To serve cheeses, always bring them to room temperature. Slice some, while keeping the majority whole. Place them on parchment sheets or grape leaves if available. A well arranged board needs little garnish.
Offer small knives and picks, with plenty of crackers.
Write the cheese name and a few words about its flavor on a slip of parchment paper and attach it with a pick in each cheese.
Rather than put out all the cheeses at once, serve half at a time of each cheese to keep them fresh; wrap remaining cheese in waxed paper for storage on the counter and replenish as needed.
To divide cheeses and wines in separate areas for a tasting — and to keep your guests from huddling around one board — group them with flavor profiles, milds and softs together, with bold and hard cheeses on another board. Put wine or beer selections to match each nearby.
As for how much to buy, Bretillina recommends about 2 ounces of each cheese per person; more if the cheese course is a main food for a party.
Prepare to spend from $9 to $29 per pound on most cheeses, though some can cost upwards of $60 a pound. Shop for them at cheese shops, wine shops, specialty groceries, delis and membership clubs, which often have larger portions at a discount. Watch sell-by dates imprinted on labels, and buy the freshest cheeses possible. If allowed, sample the cheese before buying, and ask for recommendations for alternatives to those that are ultra-pricey.
For cheese boards, any large cutting board will suffice; avoid metal and reactive metals for serving; use wood, glass, natural stone or acrylic. Cheese boards are available at many cheese and wine shops.
Most cheese and wine shops also offer catering services, and can create a cheese board completely decked out for purchase. Advance notice of a few days is generally required.
Don’t let leftovers go to waste: Cook with leftover cheeses, or freeze them, well wrapped — though their texture may be altered, their flavors will generally remain true.