If you master one skill for effortless entertaining, it should be setting out a great cheese plate. True cheese aficionados know that a cheese plate can be either amazing—a chance to discover a new favorite cheese or experience a knockout pairing—or it can utterly underwhelm. (Think about the time you almost broke a knife on that cold-as-ice block of supermarket cheese just yanked from the fridge, or watched your mother-in-law douse a “fancy” log of expensive goat cheese in curry powder just before serving it.)
With such a wonderful food (and easy party idea) it’s worth getting it right on the first try, so we reached out to cheese expert Elena Santogade, author of The Beginner’s Guide to Cheesemaking and a regional sales manager for Vermont’s Grafton Village Cheese. Luckily, she had plenty of opinions about how to improve your game.
1. Setting out un-sliced cheese.
Sound obvious? You’d be surprised. “Cheese that isn’t started out sliced in a nice way goes badly,” says Santogade. The worst offender she’s seen is when the inevitable round of Brie falls victim to “some eager but uninformed party guest, who has taken the knife and scooped out the center of the Brie, leaving this hollow rind. If the first person does that, everyone at the party follows this intractable lead.” The result is a mighty sad-looking snack, indeed. So cut the Brie into little triangles, or start a hard cheese in thin slices to set an example.
2. Taking cheese from fridge to table.
“Cheese that’s cold is never fun,” says Santogade, so temper it for 30 to 40 minutes before the party starts (depending on how hot the room is). Why? You’ll get more of a bouquet from each bite, and really notice the flavors. “The cheese needs to relax, just like anyone else,” adds Santogade.
3. Sticking with the basics.
“At parties, you have a lot of predictable food items, and people don’t get too adventurous, but I think with the cheese plate you could try new things and get a little bit out of the regular comfort zone and that could be a lot of fun,” says Santogade. She suggests that instead of plucking a “generic Gruyère” off the shelf, you “try to get something a little more unusual from the Swiss Alpine region.” (She likes master affineur Rolf Beeler’s work.) Or perhaps something “really wacky” like “Scharfe Maxx, an Alpine-style cheese that sort of tastes like bacon, it’s amazing.”
4. Buying exotic far-flung cheeses.
“When in doubt, go with something local,” Santogade suggests. “There’s no doubt about it [being superior to] the supermarket. Buying from a local cheesemaker at your local farmer’s market is a great way to have the highest quality cheese and also support a local producer.” Look for seasonal cheese while you’re at it; ask the cheesemonger or farmers’ market employee if anything is special to the holiday season. (Often, says Santogade, something will be.)
5. Starting with a strong cheese.
“Try to arrange your cheeses so people are tasting the more subtle cheese first,” says Santogade. She’s noticed that people tend to eat cheese from left to right, or go for the closest part of a cheeseboard first, working their way to the back. Soft versus hard doesn’t matter as much to her; just start with the mildest, then work up to the most intense, so people’s palates aren’t exhausted.
6. Not having enough knives.
If you can have a separate small knife for each cheese, great, but this usually isn’t pragmatic, so it’s OK to have a knife for soft items and another for firmer ones. For soft cheese, think about one with a thin knife edge, suggests Santogade, so you don’t lose a ton of gooey cheese to the knife (such as a chef’s knife). For example, she’d pick a steak knife over a butter knife.
7. Skipping the sampling.
Santogade, who married in October 2017 and didn’t have a chance to try a single one of the tasty cheeses she’d picked out at her wedding, strongly suggests making a little tasting for yourself in advance of guests arriving “so you don’t miss out.” (That’s another reason to cut them before everyone gets there!)
We couldn’t agree more.