Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Make more friends, serve more cheese

Help! I need to impress my friends and look like I know something about cheese! What should I put on a cheese plate?

Not to worry, my dear. Putting out a good cheese plate is easy. Let me be of service and help demystify at trip to the cheese counter, or (heaven forbid) a trip to the specialty cheese case in the grocery store.

First, shop around. Every cheese counter and grocery store will have a different selection of cheese. Some will be better than others. Locally owned stores might have a few more locally produced products. I always start looking there. Don't be shy about asking for help. See if the person in charge of the cheese counter is available. I love asking for help. I want to know what's in peak form today. If everything is in shrink wrap, I want to see what's freshly cut. Cheese is a living food! It begins to break down and lose flavor the moment it is cut. If it has been enveloped in plastic for a month, even breathable plastic, it won't be very tasty. When I prepare to serve a cheese, I like to take a knife or a cheese plane and scrape the cut surface of the cheese. This takes away the dead, plastic-y taste and gives you a fresh surface to enjoy.

See if the store will cut you a fresh piece of cheese. Or see it they’ll open a package so you can taste the cheese. Rainbow Grocery in San Francisco is happy to let you try before you buy. That way you'll know how a cheese tastes. If you buy an artisan cheese regularly, you might begin to taste the seasonal variations. There is a huge difference between Cowgirl Creamery's Mt. Tam made in the winter and a Mt. Tam produced in the summer. Eat more cheese and see for yourself!

How much to serve? It depends. Is this an appetizer course? Are other dishes being served? I figure an ounce of each cheese per person. Two ounces if it is the only thing being served.

Always serve aged cheeses at room temperature and each cheese should have its own knife or cheese plane.

When selecting cheeses for a party, I usually go for three or four cheeses. As a general rule of thumb, vary the milks and mix up the texures. Sometimes I'll go with a theme, like all cow's milk cheeses, or cheeses from Spain. But my favorite plate usually consists of a cow's milk cheese, a goat's milk cheese, and a sheep's milk cheese. If I'm feeling sporty, the fourth cheese will be either be a cheddar or a blue cheese.

For example, I might take a piece of Garrotxa, a Spanish goat cheese with a semi-soft, slightly chewy texture, match it with a buttery, French Triple Crème like Brillat-Savarin, and pick a sheep's milk cheese like Pecorino Foglie di Noce with walnut overtones. If I want to have the slam dunk crowd pleaser, I'd throw in a piece of Montgomery's Cheddar from Somerset, England. With this, I'd serve a full flavored honey; my favorite being a locally produced blackberry honey. A great cherry jam would work wonders, as well as some dried apricots and cranberries. Apple slices would be nice, too. I would serve everything with thin slices of a crusty, sweet, baguette and I'd call it complete.

Photo: Ticklemore Goat, aging to perfection

Other suggestions: A cheese plate of the British Isles, a.k.a. the Neal's Yard Dairy cheese plate. Cow's milk: Trethowan's Gorwydd Caerphilly, from Wales. Bright lemony flavors and beautiful layers as it ages. Goat's milk: Ticklemore Goat. Why? Because I worked there! And the semi-soft texture with the slightly salty, mushroomy bloomy rind is sublime. For a sheep's milk cheese, go for Berkswell. It can have toasted nutty notes with hints of pineapple. Then grab a piece of Harbourne Blue, a goat's milk blue and you've got a party.

Photo: Sierra Mountain Tomme from La Clarine Farm, Somerset, CA.

How about Spain? Go for Mahón (cow), Ibores (goat), Zamorano (sheep), and Valdeon (blue). I like Spanish cheeses, so here's another one for you, all goat: Nevat (semi-soft, bloomy rind with a light, creamy, and tangy), Pata Cabra (washed rind with a chewy open texture, can have green apple, fruity overtones), and Pau Sant Mateu (wash rind with a smooth paste that can be slightly strong and full flavored.)

American Artisan Plate sampler to die for: Mt. Tam (cow,) Humboldt Fog (goat,) and Nancy's Camembert (sheep.) All bloomy rinds, all creamy, all luscious, and all the trifecta of milks.

The California Plate: Harley Farm's Van Goat – fresh goat cheese with edible flowers or Elk Creamery's Goat Milk Camembert de Chevre, Rinconada Dairy's Pozo Tomme - a semi-firm sheep cheese from San Luis Obispo County, and Vella's Mezzo Secco or Cowgirl's St. Pat, finish with Pt. Reyes Original Blue.

Oregon Cheese Plate: Willamette Valley Cheese Company's Brindisi (cow), Rivers' Edge Chevre's St. Olga (washed rind goat), Ancient Heritage's Hannah Bridge (sheep), and Rogue Creamery's Echo Mountain (cow/goat blend blue).

Photo: A cheese plate from the Cheese School of San Francisco

If you're wonderinig about the cheeses that I'd always bring home without hesitation, here are a few--

Sarah's Personal Cheeseplate for Today: Cypress Grove's Midnight Moon (Goat Gouda), Cowgirl Creamery's Sir Francis Drake (cow, washed rind, triple crème), Jasper Hill Farm's Constant Bliss (cow, bloomy rind), La Clarine Farm's Sierra Mountain Tomme (goat), Abbaye de Belloc (sheep, French-Basque), Cabot Clothbound Cheddar (cow).

My absolute favorites will change every day, depending on my mood and the condition of the cheese at my local cheese counter. I might go in with a list, but I'll make substitutions if I have to.

There are no hard and fast rules, if you like one cheese, serve a big piece of it on a nice cheeseboard, and have a big knife next to it so that others can enjoy, too.

Now you will make friends at every party if you just grab a few well selected cheeses and a fresh baguette and share with your friends.


Jen said...

Great cheese advice! One of these days, I'm gonna get to the Cheese School in San Francisco!

Sairbair said...

The Cheese School is well worth a visit. You've gotta plan ahead, however as classes fill up quickly. I really enjoyed working there and I learned how to put together a good cheese plate or two.

Jen said...

I bet they fill up quickly! I really like how cheeses are starting to be treated as reverently as wines. Heck, there's nearly as much variety! :)