I love everything about a cheese platter. I love how something as simple on the surface can include fantastic diversity of flavors and textures. I love how you can mix simple on-hand items with a few splurges to create an elegant meal. A classic cheese platter may contain only a few items or be an elaborate event centerpiece.
Most importantly, the CHEESE. There are four main types of cheese ~ aged, soft, firm, and blue. I like to choose one of each. Some of my absolute favorites are Aged Gouda that has a little crunch due to the lactic acid forming calcium lactate crystals and Brillat-Savarin whose luscious creaminess is worth the splurge. I also try to select at least one from each type of milk (cow, goat, and sheep). For aesthetics, serve a variety of shapes, too ~ wedges, bricks, and molded rounds.
Although, many people are willing to experience unusual options, remember that some are not as adventurous with what they consider exotic. Serve at least one familiar cheese to make sure everyone is taken care of.
How Much ~ If using cheese as an appetizer or dessert, estimate about 1-2 oz per person. I bump this to 3-4 oz if this is my main course. Select at least three cheeses. If there are more than 12 guests, choose an additional 2 varieties per 3 people.
Cheese can be pricey so see if your cheese counter will let you sample a small piece before you purchase. Some cheese mongers will have a selection of small end pieces that can be purchased and are a great way to sample some new varieties. Specialty shops like Cheesetique in Arlington, Bowers Fancy Dairy in Eastern Market, Righteous Cheese in Union Market, and Calvert Woodley in Van Ness are great resources for expanding your cheese knowledge.
Next, the ACCOMPANIEMENTS. All the extras are a great way to spread your budget and round out your cheese platter. Once again, variety is key. Sweet or Salty. Soft or Crunchy. The possibilities are endless ~ nuts, meats, fruits, spreads, BREAD (I love a fresh baguette), crackers, olives, cornichons…. In general, for every salty item I have, I also have one sweet.
This is an area that you can use to highlight the seasons. Fresh Strawberries in May, Apple Butter in Fall. Small Pumpkins or Cranberries make a beautiful garnish with Rosemary sprigs. Sliced Pears and Blood Oranges are perfect to brighten a Winter evening. Grape Clusters are classic, and I love fresh figs when available. Apricot Jam and Honey are wonderful, but try something unexpected like Lemon Curd with your Blue Cheese (trust me, it’s delish!)
Finally, the PRESENTATION. Make sure to take your cheese out of the refrigerator 30-60 minutes before serving, separate stinky cheeses, and make sure to have different knives for each cheese. I find that no one likes to be the first one to cut into a new cheese so cut a few slices of each to encourage guests to begin.
My favorite platters are either wood or slate, and I use little decorative bowls for some of the accompaniments. Label each cheese so you won’t have to repeat the names over and over, especially if you are using your cheese platter as a main course. You can also add a couple adjectives describing the flavor. I love the animal ones which can be found at Amazon or Williams-Sonoma.
So play around. Make something as casual or sophisticated as you want. Remember, by keeping a few items in your pantry like nuts, dried fruits, and olives, you are always ready for when guests pop in. The only thing left is to open a bottle or two of your favorite wine!