Celebrate with Wine and Cheese

When I think of a New Year’s Eve party, I envision nibbles, bubbles, and all of the trapping of a glittery cocktail party. A celebration to beat all celebrations as we put the old behind us and take a fresh look at life, love, and other important things. In my world, two must haves at any glittery cocktail party, any time of year, are cheese and wine. Of course, because the worlds of wine and cheese are so vast, and quality runs the gamut from just okay to really spectacular, making the just right selections can be a bit of a challenge. While I’m relatively comfortable making wine and cheese choices, I decided it was time to get some well-qualified advice on how to make the best selections. Enter the trusty experts from my local Central Market. They were invaluable resources at Thanksgiving, helping me understand the ins-and-outs of buying a turkey and pairing wine with my feast, and they were once again gracious enough to share their extensive knowledge with me. What follows is their best advice on how to create a cheese plate for any occasion and how to buy wine for a crowd. And while I have New Year’s Eve on my mind just now, this information will come in handy all year long.

Building the Perfect Cheese Plate

I spent a morning with Kelly Sheehan, one of Central Market’s foremost cheese experts, to demystify creating a cheese plate. There are three general areas to consider as you construct your cheese offering:

  • The cheeses
  • The accompaniments
  • The service

Beyond putting your plate together, it’s also important to think about:

  • Storing the cheese
  • Getting expert advice from your local cheese expert

Selecting the Cheeses

As you ponder what cheese to put on your plate, Kelly suggests following these guidelines:

  • Try to keep your cheese plate to three cheeses. While you may be tempted to go with five or seven selections, too much cheese can overwhelm your guests and they may not truly enjoy the plate.
  • Plan for one or two ounces of cheese total per person. This provides a nice taste for each guest without filling them up on cheese. However, if the cheese plate is part of a much larger menu, you may only need to plan for half an ounce. Even a cheese that is $30/lb becomes a bit more budget-friendly when you only need to buy a few ounces of it.
  • Mix milks and textures. Goat and sheep’s milk cheeses provide a nice counterpoint to the more traditional cow’s milk cheeses, and there are several “entry level” cheeses made of these milks if you need to help your guests get comfortable with something other than cow’s milk. Guest with more adventurous pallets will appreciate the different milks. A range of textures makes the tasting experience more interesting as well.

These three guidelines are just a starting point. You may want to give your cheese plate a focus or a theme. Your plate might be inspired by:

  • A region. You may want to offer guests and all French, American, or Italian cheese plate. Within any of these countries you might even choose to represent a specific area or state to really immerse your guests in a little bit of the world.
  • Personal experiences. I once put together a cheese plate that reflected the places I’d travelled that year (Seattle, San Francisco, Boston) so I could share my food experiences with my friends. I’m generally able to get most cheeses that I’m looking for from Central Market, but just in case, I pick up online ordering information when I come across a cheese I like while traveling.
  • A holiday or special event. It might be fun on St. Patrick ‘s Day to put together an all-Irish cheese plate or an all American cheese plate for the Fourth of July. For a bridal shower, you could include one cheese each from the area in which the bride and groom were born and the third from where they will live together.

Kelley also suggests not serving baked brie and a cheese plate on the same menu unless it’s a menu of significant size. Choose one or the other.

Choosing Cheese Companions

Despite what the children’s song says, the cheese rarely stands alone. You’ll want to put out a few additional goodies to go with your cheese plate, and Kelly suggests these as the perfect partners:

  • Nuts
  • Pears and apples
  • Figs, fig bread, and fig spread (particularly with blue cheese)
  • Date bars and other dense fruit bars, often sold alongside cheeses
  • Dried fruits

Kelley also recommends serving bread instead of crackers with the plate because it’s sturdier and adds yet another texture to the tasting experience. A simple sliced baguette is a great place to start.

Serving the Cheese

Just about any plate or board will work as a cheese serve; you don’t need to go out and buy something special just to serve cheese. I often use a cutting board, and I’ve been keeping my eye out for a broken piece of slate but only if I can get it for free or almost free. When you set out the cheese on whatever surface you choose, be sure to:

  • Cut a few pieces of cheese to get your guests started.
  • Include a different knife for each cheese. The knives don’t need to be fancy either.
  • Set the cheese out at least an hour before guests arrive so it’s at room temperature. Cold cheese won’t offer its full flavor.

Storing Cheese

If you’re going to put together a plate of quality cheese, it’s important to take good care of your cheese before you serve it to your guests. Kelly’s tips for storing cheese properly include:

  • Buy the cheese as close to the day of your party as you can. Your grocery store is much better prepared to store cheese than you are, so leave it with them for as long as possible.
  • When you get the cheese home, take it out of the plastic and store it in wax paper or cheese paper. Plastic prevents the cheese from breathing whereas wax paper and cheese paper are more porous.
  • Store the cheese in your vegetable bin, or in your meat and cheese bin if you fridge happens to have one. Cheese does best in the coldest and most humid area of your refrigerator.

Working with Your Cheese Monger

If you have access to a cheese expert at your local market or a cheese shop, don’t be afraid to ask them for help. Cheese is their business and they try hundreds of cheeses a year. When you get ready to talk to your cheese monger about the cheeses for your plate, think about these things:

  • Who are you entertaining? Are they adventurous eaters or more conservative? Do they have any special dietary restrictions?
  • What else are you serving? Is the plate an appetizer before a big meal, part of a buffet, or the star of the show?
  • What cheeses do you like? Which don’t you like? Don’t worry, they won’t judge you if you don’t like blue cheese.

In the end, the cheese monger wants to help you find your “cheese comfort zone” so you’re happy with the cheese you buy. If you want to push your limits, let them know and they will help you. If you’d rather not, they can work with that too. Remember that they are there to be your guide and it’s in their best interest for you to be a satisfied customer.

My Holiday Cheese Plates

I put together a couple of cheese plates this season using these six different cheeses. I was able to put what I learned from Kelly to work and get assistance from the cheese mongers at Central Market, so I was very happy with these cheese offerings. More than one guest asked me about my cheese selections, which is further evidence of success.

  • Erin Gold Irish-Style Cheese – cow’s milk. This cheese is light, buttery, and very accessible to many different pallets.
  • Pyrenees Plain Cheese – cow’s milk. This is one of my favorite French cheeses. It’s also accessible to most but a little more interesting than the Erin Gold. A peppercorn version is also available for a bit of spice on your cheese plate.
  • Cypress Grove Lamb Chopper – sheep’s milk. This is an award winning cheese that is a a great way to introduce people who generally only eat cow’s milk cheese to a new kind of cheese
  • Carr Valley Show White Goat Cheddar – goat’s milk. This is my favorite cheese of all time. It won best in show at the national cheese show two years ago and people who don’t like goat cheese like this cheese. It is wonderfully complex cheddar that is produced in small batches, so it can be difficult to find.
  • Caciotta Capra Pepe E Olio – sheep’s milk. A parmesan-like cheese with a black pepper rind from Italy. It is rubbed in olive oil and is a great alternative to parmesan on a cheese plate or in other applications.
  • Point Reyes Blue Cheese – cow’s milk. This gem from California is aged in caves on the coast which gives it a very distinct flavor. I regularly stir it in polenta but it’s fantastic on its own. A must-try if you are a blue cheese lover.

Cheese Tray on Foodista Learn more about cheese plates from Foodista

Wine for a Crowd

Buying a nice wine for an intimate dinner party is the easy wine purchase. Buying in bulk for a big soiree is a whole different ball of wax. Selecting wine for a crowd can be complicated by a number of things:

  • The large volume of wine you have to buy, which will most likely limit your per-bottle budget
  • The variety of pallets and preferences, which creates a bigger group of people to please.
  • The diversity of flavors in a buffet or collection of appetizers, which makes specific food and wine pairings difficult

As I approached the holiday season and started planning for my different events, I wanted some solid advice on how to make the most of my budget and provide my guests with wines they would truly enjoyed. I once again consulted Paul Schunder, the Central Market expert who helped me with my Thanksgiving wine selections. He boiled his best advice for buying for a party down to these key things to remember:

  • At most provide two white varietals and 3 red varietals. The party pallet can’t really process more than five different wines, so even if someone tries every wine offered, you won’t overwhelm their pallete.
    • For the whites, choose a lighter, non-oaked wine like a Sauvignon Blank, as well as a heartier and oaky Chardonnay.
    • For the reds, try to cover the spectrum of medium to heavy bodied wines with a range of tannins. Your guests’ preferences and pallets will really dictate your selections, but what’s important is to provide some variety.
  • Also consider offering a champagne or sparkling wine for those who prefer bubbles. Champagne works well with many foods and is a palette cleanser, making it a good choice for a buffet with many different flavors.
  • An option for your buffet it to set wines that pair well with different collections of menu items next to those items on your buffet table. You can either directly encourage your guests to try the food and wine pairings together or just let the natural proximity be their guide.
  • To keep your costs under control, buy from a wine merchant who offers discounts on mixed cases. Most wine shops offer a standard 10% discount on cases, with some offering up to 20%.

As with any wine purchase, your wine merchant’s expert is there to help you find a wine that you like and that fits your budget. These few bits of information will help the expert help you more effectively:

  • The number of people you plan to serve.
  • A description of three to four menu items that represent your overall menu.
  • How many of what types of wine you’d like to buy.
  • Your per-bottle budget.
  • Your favorite wines, even ones that are outside of your per-bottle range, because they will give your expert a general idea of what you like.

Keep Track

One of the things I’ve started doing is keeping track of wines and cheese that I like so I can refer to them again later when I’m ready to plan a party. I also make notes about what wines and cheeses I selected for a party along with my thoughts about them. These jotted notes help me better define what I do and don’t like, and the specifics are useful in my discussions with my local experts. A small moleskin notebook or even a running note on my iPhone is all it takes.

1 Comment

  1. Natanya,

    What a great post. This helps break down all factors that should be considered when serving wine and cheese and makes it more manageable! I like the idea of accompaniments. Recently, when tasting beer and cheese, some of the accompaniments were dried bananas (can bring out the nuttiness in some cheeses), pomegranate seeds (juicy and bright flavors), and Austin Slow Burn Spiced Peach jam, to add a little zip, and paired well with a soft, brie-like cheese.

    Thanks for putting this together–I will definitely use next time I have a wine/cheese gathering!

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