As with any shop that sells comestible magic (coffee, wine, cured meats), it can be a little overwhelming when you first set foot in a cheese store. What do I need? What do I even like? How much cheese is enough for my guest list? Is there such thing as enough cheese? Is there a magic word I have to say, or does the wand choose the wizard, or what? All perfectly understandable questions that your cheesemonger will be happy to walk through with you. But if you’re the type who likes to come prepared, consider these seven tips on your path to dairy-magic mastery.
1. Don’t overthink this.
Let’s just start by stating the obvious: you’re serving cheese. Everyone loves cheese. Even your vegan friends still secretly do. It’s the Channing Tatum of food groups. We’ve got six more helpful pointers here for you, but there’s really no way you can do this wrong. Take a deep breath and have some fun with it!
2. Curate by milk type.
Too much of a good thing is a freaking excellent thing when it comes to cheese. Too much of the same thing, however, can get a little dull. As a baseline, try to build a board that includes the Holy Trinity of milk types: cow, sheep, and goat. Once you’ve rounded those three bases, you can bring it home with a couple more exotic selections if the spirit moves you.
3. Play with opposites.
Counterpointing textures and flavors are foundational to every great food experience (including, but most definitely not limited to, dunking fries in a milkshake), and the vast range of cheeses provides an infinite playground of contrasts. Play something mild and lactic, like a triple cream, against something sharp and nutty, like an aged manchego. Play something soft and gooey, like your classic camembert, against something that has aged to a hard, crystalline crumble, like your iconic parmigiano-reggiano. And don’t forget those blissful midranges, y’all. Gouda! Cheddar! Garrotxa!
4. Let things get intense.
Listen, it’s entirely understandable that you might be hesitant to slice open something that smells like feet minutes before guests arrive. But fortune favors the bold, right? And there’s a whole galaxy of bold flavors awaiting you at the funkier end of the cheese universe. Suddenly you’re playing with strong notes of spices, herbs, brown butter, mushrooms, even bacon overtones. Bacon overtones, do you hear?! We promise you’re not going to stank out your entire living room, and if you start mild and remember the Holy Trinity we talked about before, your guest will have a great time venturing as far as they dare.
5. Don’t forget the little touches.
Once you’ve got your cheeses locked in, it’s time to start considering the accoutrements. If you’ve had fun picking out equal-but-opposite cheeses, you’re going to be positively giddy with the panoply of palate sharpeners you can add to power up your spread. Consider dried apricots, chutneys, quince paste, pistachios, grapes, olives, honey, cherries, even dark chocolate to take on some of your bolder selections. The name of the cheese-board game is variety, and these little touches have the power to pull out exponential nuances from each of your cheeses. Just remember, these are little touches. Cheeses are divas; they’re going insist on being the stars of the show.
6. Skip the wine for a change.
Few would be so gauche as to suggest that wine and cheese don’t play nice together, but it’s a fact that the tannins in wines, especially reds, tend to dull the palate. Plus, do you realize we are living in the golden age of brewing? What a time to be alive! Keep the surprises coming by serving fine beers or ciders with your board. The effervescence in these drinks keeps the palate sharp. Fruit notes in hard cider pair beautifully with your milder cheeses, and a rich stout can bring out the full glory of a blue cheese or any of your funkier washed-rind powerhouses.
7. Consider your tools.
Okay, so you’ve checked everything off your list and made fast friends with your local cheesemonger. The last step is first impressions. We start eating with our eyes well before the first slab of brie passes our lips. It’s a great idea to present your selections on a dark board that lets the cheeses stand out. Slate and dark wood make an excellent appearance. Also, make sure you have a full complement of serving tools. Your cheese board is going to be almost frighteningly popular, and the last thing you want is ravenous friends fighting over sharp instruments. Here’s to a cheese board that leaves everyone noshing rapturously, with all their digits intact!