In previous articles, we shared our Cheese Knife Guide, and illustrated How to Cut Cheese. Now it’s time to put all that knowledge to use and complete the cheese platter with all the appropriate accoutrements.
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Now that you have successfully cut the cheese employing the correct instruments, it’s important that you choose your cheese board toppings wisely. You can do better than Triscuits and water crackers!
First things first. When designing your cheese platter, ask yourself the following:
- How many cheeses? I would select between 3 and 5different kinds. Anything more will cost you a fortune.
- What types? Ideally you want to mix up milk types (including at least 1 cow’s milk, 1 goat’s milk and 1 sheep’s milk cheese); mixing up textures (choosing between a soft, a semi-firm and an aged type), and varying rind treatments (washed rind, bloomy rind and rindless).
- How much cheese? Short answer: 1 oz per person, per hour.
Once you’ve decided that, proceed by choosing your platter. I usually gravitate around the following, which I rub with a very thin layer of olive oil, to avoid soft cheeses from sticking.
If you’re worried about clean-up, you can get creative with a bed of greens on your platter, using rainbow chard, dandelion or kale.
A good idea is identifying the cheeses with fun tags, or place cards. If you’ve chosen to present your cheeses on a chalkboard or a slate tile you can write the name of each cheese next to it in different color chalk or dry white marker.
Why the accountrements?
Why the accoutrements, you ask? Sometimes I feel the fancy looking cheese platters I see online are made to look good, instead of simply chosen to taste good. I’ve just recently started making my cheese boards a little more ornate. I actually still prefer to eat cheese on its own to taste it more thoroughly. But all visual considerations aside, adding accoutrements on my cheese spread (without overdoing it) does bring out hidden characteristics in the cheese.
So here I stand corrected, ready to share my favorite cheese board accompaniments, broken down in major categories.
A great way to cleanse palates between cheese bites is providing a starchy element on your cheese platter.
Bread – Invest in some good sourdough bread (or make your own) and slice it just before serving. Consider a baguette for your French stinkers. Choose ciabatta, rolls or focaccia and place the slices or squares in a basket, which can be refilled as necessary.
Crackers – Ditch the commercial stuff and either make your own with sourdough starter discard, or go for crisps packed with tons of seeds that are great with both soft spreadable cheese like Robiola and Fromager d’Affinois, as well as chunkier cheeses, like American clothbound cheddars.
Breadsticks – Breadsticks are one of the most celebrated and widespread products of Torino’s gastronomy. Wrap breadsticks with silken slices of prosciutto, or arrange bunches in tumbler glasses. Interested in making your own breadsticks? Here’s an easy recipe.
Taralli – This wheat flour and olive oil loop-shaped crunchy crackers are poached and then baked to a crisp. Traditional taralli Pugliesi pair wonderfully with your cheese board.
Cookies – Don’t think chocolate chip. But rather consider small sablé, petit fours or other tea cookies. Homemade biscotti or almond studded cantucci all work very well with soft stinkers, triple crèmes and blue babies.
Pro tip: Always include a few options for your gluten-free guests. Have a separate basket with corn tortillas, rice cakes and other options sans wheat, like for example dehydrated fruit or veggie crudité.
Condiments can elevate the flavor of a cheese by contrasting the saltiness with some sugar, bringing out unexpected notes like grassiness or nuttiness, and adding textural complexity to each mouthful. These can help cut a cheese’s richness with tartness or spice, or balance its funk and earthiness with a touch of dolce. I have therefore divided the condiments into two broad categories: sweet and piquant.
Sweet condiments for cheese
Jams, Preserves and Jellies – These are ideal dance partners for flinty, hard cheeses like aged pecorino, manchego and flaky Parmigiano. I always keep a jar of small-batch fig jam and my own homemade seasonal compote in the fridge (pumpkin, apricot, plum, black cherry…). Just as each cheese should have its own knife to avoid cross-pollination, likewise each jam should sit in its own little pinch pot/bowl with an egg spoon.
Amarena cherries – These delicious sour cherries come packed with their syrup in a lovely painted crock. Amarena cherries provide the perfectly balanced amount of sweetness to cut through creamy, buttery cheeses, like Brie and Camembert, or playing up the nuttiness of mild Swiss expressions like Gruyère or Raclette.
Pro tip: amarena cherries + triple crème cheeses + graham crackers = absolute revelation.
Honeycomb – Honey and cheese are a classic pairing. But instead of using liquid or crystallized honey, you can add an entire piece of raw honeycomb to your platter. It’s totally edible and provides nice texture. Also, quite visually pleasing!
Chocolate – Have you ever tasted chocolate and cheese? They are great together. Intensely pungent, veiny blues like Gorgonzola, Shropshire or Stilton taste sinful with dark chocolate. Milk chocolate pairs beautifully with soft-ripened, washed-rind cheeses like Pont l’Évêque. Chocolate also exalts the sweetness of ricotta, or the caramel notes of aged Gouda or Comté.
Piquant condiments for cheese
Savory jams – Savory jams bring that palate surprise that smoothes over the herbaceous, barnyardy notes of cheeses like sheep’s milk pecorinos, or overly goaty goat cheeses. My favorite is onion jam: a sweet-savory delight that slices through the richness of gooey cheeses like Camembert or Epoisses, and that teases out the sweet grassy notes of Fontina and Asiago.
Mostarda – Mostrada is usually a sauce for northern Italian boiled meats. But to quote Madame Fromage––a fellow curd nerd and self proclaimed cheese courtesan––“Mostarda is the cheese lover’s magic trick.” Jars of mostarda di Cremona have huge, glistening chunks of preserved fruit in a clear sweet syrup, spiked with hot mustard oil. Drizzle some on a morsel of cheese to add a little kick, or pop a chunk of the fruit in your mouth if you want to see stars. Mostarda and cheese is addictive, beware.
Dijon mustard – Raw and vibrant old style mustard that is full of seeds works as an ideal accoutrement for hard, aged cheeses like sharp cheddars and goudas. You’ll want to pair tangy mustard with a strong flavored cheese that will stand up to the intense salty-spicy nuances of mustard. And if your cheese can’t hold the competition with your mustard of choice, drizzle dark amber Vermont maple syrup to take the edge off.
Chutney – Mango chutney changed my life. I was skittish about tasting a particularly funky blue, but a spoonful of the magical concoction eased my taste buds into what has now become a habitual naughty nightcap.
FRUIT & NUTS
The best palate cleanser is fresh fruit. As a result, here are a few paring suggestions.
- Salty aged cheeses beg for slivered pears and crisp apple slices.
- Creamy goat cheeses and bloomy rind stinkers pair well with chilled, splashy cotton candy grapes.
- Figs enjoy a very narrow late summer/early autumn seasonal window, so catch them while you can: black figs and blue cheese are a match made in heaven.
- Blueberries go with all cheeses, pomegranate kernels are like juicy rubies, and soft persimmon is practically jam in fresh fruit form.
Dried fruit – Definitely also works very well on the cheese platter: think Medjool dates, dried apricots, pitted prunes, cranberries, raisins, plantain chips, candied papaya, etc.
Nuts – Cheese loves nuts. For your platter choose a selection of celebratory toasted pistachios, whole almonds, unsalted cashews, pecans. I can keep going.
Pro tip: Moist “washed rind” cheeses (eg. Taleggio, Grayson, and Pont-l’Évêque) work very well with warm toasted walnuts. And don’t get me started on candied pecans…
Vegetables are great palate cleansers and excellent cheese platter accoutrements.
Lettuce & Co. – Small tapered leaves are perfect “spoons” for soft, spreadables––think Belgian endive spears, Radicchio or Romaine lettuce hearts.
Crudité – The blank canvas crunch of raw carrot sticks, is ideal for dairy. Consider including Persian cucumber slices, romanesco florets, snap peas cut open to expose the beads. Celery hearts with leaves attached call blues and triple crèmes, as well as Bruss and other assertive characters.
Grill marks – The charred edges of grilled zucchini, eggplant or pumpkin make perfect conversation with salty sheep’s milk cheeses. Think Tuscan pecorinos or smoky Sardinian counterparts.
Confit tomatoes – Cherry tomatoes that bake low and slow in olive oil, garlic and herbs have saved me on more than one occasion. Toast some sourdough, smear with fresh goat cheese, top with confit tomatoes, and stop smiling, if you can.
Caponata – Caponata is a tangy, salty-sweet Sicilian specialty of fried eggplant, celery, caramelized onions, capers, olives, raisins, pine nuts, concentrated tomato, sugar and vinegar. This cooked “salad” normally comes served as a side dish, but for your cheese plate, consider it a special relish. It works perfectly with salty cheeses like Feta or grilled Halloumi.
Not necessarily to eat, but rather for the pleasure of your nostrils. Especially if there are pungent cheeses on the table. Also, joy for the eyes.
Sprigs of rosemary, bunches of fresh velvety sage, potted thyme, scattered peppercorns, cinnamon sticks, and bunches of lavender. Aromatics contribute to bringing out the herbaceous bouquet of certain farmstead cheeses. And by the same token, they bring your cheese game up a notch.
NOT on my cheese board
Most importantly, you will hardly see the following accoutrements on my cheese boards, not because I don’t like them, to the contrary! I simply feel they are a distraction. They have too briny, spicy or assertive characteristics that take attention away from the formaggio.
Pickles – I save anything vinegary or briny (dill pickles, cornichons, oil-preserved artichoke hearts, cocktail pearl onions, peppadews, giardiniera and the now uber popular Castelvetrano olives) for the charcuterie board. Not for my cheese platter.
Citrus – The acidic nature of citrus poses a sharp contrast with the mild and creamy nature of cheese, covering the flavor profile completely. Furthermore, citric acid acts as a coagulant for certain dairy expressions (like Mascarpone). Therefore, eating cheese topped with citrus wedges or marmalade could potentially create unpleasant activity in your gut.
Candied ginger – To clarify, as much as I like it, ginger is too spicy for the cheese board, even in candied form.
In conclusion, these are my personal preferences, based on my palate. Remember that creative flavor pairings are half the fun when it comes to building your own cheese plate. Let the rule be to top the cheese you love with the accoutrements you love.
Shall we talk about pairing cheese and wine? We hold monthly wine and cheese pairing lessons online, we hope you will join the conversation!