While this may seem counterintuitive to some (not me), summer is the perfect time to serve a cheese plate when entertaining. Recently faced with hostessing duties on a warm summer night, I set out to pull together a tasty, sophisticated and adventurous cheese plate (sorry cheddar cubes). I was immediately confronted with the sheer magnitude of cheeses available.
Undeterred, I consulted some local cheese mongers, and found that passion for cheese--good cheese--is contagious.
My Cheese Tour Guides
Ken Skovron of Darien Cheese & Fine Foods has been in business for 36 years and is revered for his exquisite taste in fine, far- flung cheeses and his easygoing manner.
Chris Palumbo (and long-time friend Laura Downey) took a passion for cheeses of the world--especially American artisanal and farmstead cheese--and opened Fairfield Cheese Company four years ago.
My two "mentors" (and their friendly staff's) answered my emails (from a cheese conference in Wisconsin no less), chatted with me on the phone and let me come in and eat cheese at will. Not surprisingly, people in the "cheese" world love talking about cheese. Turns out, so do I.
Cheese Plate Fundamentals
Quantity: Providing three or four different cheeses is a good place to start. Serving size can range from anywhere from half an ounce to two ounces per cheese per guest. Portions depend on your crowd and what else you are serving.
Flavors: Be adventurous and ask your cheesemonger what he or she likes right now. This is where it gets fun. Sample! Sample! Sample! It's not only acceptable it is expected. You are paying good money for a fine cheese. Invest wisely! Also, talking cheese with a cheese monger? You've made their day.
Variety: Go wild. Jet set around the world via your cheese plate. A cheese shop is like a mini U.N. Countries from around the world are represented. And guess what? Its kind of exciting. Each cheese brings with it a unique "taste of place"-- the characteristics of where and when it was made are evident in its flavors.
Goat and sheep's milk cheeses are great picks for summer months: Spring is kidding season (when goats give birth) and this results in lots of fresh, bright and citrusy goat's milk. Very fresh goats milk cheeses are delivered to shops on a weekly basis. Goats milk cheeses vary week to week in taste providing, as Stovon puts it, "a snapshot of a particular time and place."
As for sheep's milk cheeses, they are more easily digested than cows milk and might be more pleasant on a hot summer evening.
Blue Veined Cheeses: Eschew the crackers and consider serving with fresh, local farmers market honey as I did with the French raw milk Roquefort on my plate. The salty-sweet combo is addictive!
Finally, My Cheese Plate: The Details
So what made the cut after all that research?
1) Something fresh and local: Melville Soft Ripened Cheese. Mystic Cheese Company (Purchased at Fairfield Cheese Company).
2) Two California cheeses from Cypress Grove Chevre: Humboldt Fog and Truffle Tremor. (My husband used to live in NorCal and Humboldt Fog makes him nostalgic. The second one? Because I couldn't decide).
3) A tasty punch of color: This robust English Red Leicester is hard, crumbly, sweet and tangy! I guess that's what they mean by "complex" (Suggested by and purchased at Darien Cheese & Fine Foods)
4) A blue vein from France: Roquefort Blue raw sheep's milk cheese. As recommended, we served this with some local honey and walnuts we had on hand. Delicious! (Recommended by and purchased at Fairfield Cheese Company.)
Finishing touches: Honey, walnuts, fresh fruit (sliced peaches and fresh blueberries) and crackers.