The Starkside

Pleased with Cheese

Recently I hosted a party and had to figure out some wine and cheese pairings. At that time it occurred to me that Americans in general, are not as familiar as Europeans with serving cheese and I thought it would be helpful to pass along some ideas.

In a world where thousands of varieties of cheeses are available, an understanding of how to serve quality cheese is a skill worth cultivating.

When planning to serve cheese to guests, the hardest decisions for me are: how many cheeses to serve, what kinds to offer, and what quantity would be appropriate to satisfy each guest.

Are you aware that most experts recommend that when offering a plate of cheese, an odd number is more attractive than an even number?

They claim it’s visually more attractive to serve three, five, or seven than two, four, or six. I had not been aware of this nuance because A) I’m a clueless man and, B) I’m not particularly sensitive to design issues. To me, what’s more important is to create an enjoyable tasting experience.

It’s worth the effort to shop at a reliable store with knowledgeable staff when purchasing cheese. I’m happy to recommend the Ithaca Coffee Company, any Wegman’s store, and Maines, which is a purveyor to restaurants that also sells to retail customers. You are probably familiar with a specialty shop near you that offers a wide variety of distinctive cheeses. I prefer to shop at a retailer that sells cheese that isn’t prewrapped so I can have a block or slices cut to order. I also appreciate a counter person who offers me a taste before I commit to purchase, because quality cheese can be expensive. Good cheeses can easily run from $9 per pound to more than $25, although if you are happy with American and Swiss cheese, you should have no trouble finding reasonable quality at around $5/pound.

When I’m planning to serve cheese to company, I like to choose a theme before heading out to shop. Some of the themes I’ve used include: all the cheeses come from the same country; the same animal species; or will pair well with a wine I’m serving. My favorite cheese producing countries are England, France, and Italy. Incidentally, when I lived in France I learned that there are about 365 French cheeses – so you can have a different one every day of the year if you like. Artisanal cheese making is also enjoying resurgence in the U.S. and local producers can be found across our region. It can be fun to serve cheese made from the milk of different animals – cows, goats, and sheep. Any of these themes can add interesting and educational dimensions of texture and flavor for your guests.

My hardest decision is often how much to purchase. On the one hand, I don’t want to run out of cheese and on the other hand, I prefer not to have a lot of aromatic leftovers in the fridge. First, consider whether you will serve the cheese as an hors d’oeuvre or as a separate course. Nibbling before dinner requires less cheese than a plated course. Then, take a moment to analyze the guests you’re inviting, accounting for those who will eat more than others can be helpful. When planning cheese as an appetizer course, I typically offer two to three ounces of three different cheeses per person. If it’s going to be a dessert I might reduce that amount by half. The bottom line is: it’s really a guest-imate (get it?). If you’re planning to serve cheese as an accompaniment to wine, it’s a good idea to consider a few basic things about wine…just simple stuff. Most wine experts recommend that if you’re serving a variety of wines it’s best to start light and build intensity, progressing from dry whites to sweeter whites, then to dry reds and finally sweeter reds. (The term “dry” refers to the amount of residual sugar in the wine.) There’s a similar progression in cheese eating—start with mild and progress to strong. Your palate will appreciate balanced pairings and you’ll be able to better experience the subtle flavor variations in both the cheese and the wine.

When you plate the cheese, start with mildest and progress to the strongest. If your plate is round, your mildest will end up next to your strongest. A separating garnish of dried or fresh fruits or nuts adds visual and gustatory appeal. Blues are usually the strongest cheeses. Another wine tip: port, tawny port, Sauternes, and late harvest wines pair well with most strong cheese.

If you do decide to serve cheese, the bottom line is to not to be intimidated by the project and to have fun with it. No matter what you do or how you do it, you and your guests will be eating cheese (and drinking wine!) so how bad can that be?

Have you had an interesting experience when serving, or being served, cheeses? Do you have any tips about cheese and wine pairing? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.


Henry Stark has been a food and wine columnist, writer, and restaurant reviewer for the Ithaca Journal, the Ithaca Times, and The Good Life magazine. A teacher, advocate, and enthusiast, Henry shares his always well-considered—sometimes contrarian—views in inimitable style, opening the door to a robust conversation with fellow members.
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