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A Platter Matter

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By Rachael Lucas

I am in the business of ensuring that everyone else has a good holiday. 

For cheese professionals, this is the busiest time of year.  While other people are attending parties, hosting gift exchanges, taking vacations, relaxing, and eating fudge, my colleagues and I work long hours, hustle to keep our cases full, and assist hundreds of people with their cheese selections and holiday needs.  One of my favorite aspects of the December bustle is the myriad cheese platters that I get to construct.  Often, customers dial my department with emergency platter needs and a confession that she or he doesn’t think there is time and/or the creativity to do it as well as I do.  While I revel in the compliments, I admit that my platter artistry is nothing unattainable.  What I do, you can do, too.  You merely need to assess the crowd that is to indulge in your platter and then tackle it organoleptically.  

Rachael cheese platter 3 Picmonkey

The first item of business is to determine what kind of cheese eaters these party goers are.  Is it a food-driven group?  Do they eat specialty cheese?  If unsure, the safest bet is to select crowd pleasers.  In this instance, I tend to steer clear of blue cheese, as it seems to be, debatably, the most controversial style of cheese.  If you decide to throw in a blue, make sure it’s a milder one. 

For a simple platter, select three or four cheeses.  The fromage is the foundation of your cheese plate.  Build the rest of the trencher around said cheese.  You want this tray to be aesthetically pleasing, so select cheeses with different coloration.  One way to make certain this occurs is to use a variety of milk types.  How about one cow, one goat, one sheep, and one mixed-milk cheese?  Another option is to use one cheese that has annatto (a natural dye used in cheese) in the paste, which gives it a gorgeous orange hue—sure to stand out among the rest.  Mimolette, for example, is an ideal cheese for a board.  It is modelled after Dutch Edam, thus quite easy to eat, and its paste is pumpkinesque. 

Consideration of texture is paramount.  A variety of mouthfeels will contribute to an overall sensorially enjoyable experience.  A good way to ensure this is to choose a soft ripened, a semi-soft/semi-firm, and a well-aged cheese.  The soft ripened cheese will require a tool for spreading (as well as fare on which to spread!).  I often use a triple crème brie style for the softie.  It is a lot like eating cultured buttercream, and I haven’t found many people who turn their noses up at it.  The semi-soft/semi-firm cheese can be cut, arranged artfully, and picked up with fingers.  This cheese is versatile; it can be eaten alone or enjoyed on bread or crackers.  The mature cheese should be contrasting enough from the others that one is receiving the full textural experience.  An aged gouda, cheddar, or alpine cheese can provide crunch from protein crystallization that is certain to merit oohs and aahs.     

Once you have selected your cheese, be sure to arrange them on the platter first.  Everything else works around the main feature, which, in my opinion, is always fromage.  Be sure to cut each cheese differently from the rest.  For example, if you cut a semi-firm cheese such as Manchego into triangles (its traditional cut), make sure that your well-aged cheese is chopped into matchstick pieces (a nice shape for Alpine cheese, such as Comté) or chunked into marble-sized bites for your aged cheddar or gouda.  These are just a few ways to cut cheese; it can be chiseled and arranged into countless shapes.  If you want one cheese to stand out, place it closer to the center.  The rest of the board should be fluidly situated around it.  There must be an even distribution of cheese.  Do not neglect one side or the other of your platter. 

When your cheeses are creatively positioned on your tray, it’s time to fill in the space.  Do you want to include charcuterie?  It adds a saltiness and fills in the platter well.  It also aids in fluid movement, as you can line up the slices to snake around the plate.  The only deterrent would be the vegetarian guest.  If I know that there are going to be meatless grazers, I tend to make a separate platter for the charcuterie.  Most vegetarians wouldn’t dare eat cheese that is touching meat.  It is a simple and greatly appreciated courtesy.  Besides, meat platters are gorgeous.

If you have included a variety of cheese textures, then you are sure to have different flavor profiles.  While one cheese is saltier than the others, another is sweet, another tart, and another is savory.  The accoutrements will accentuate and/or balance out the flavors and aromas in the fromage.  Be mindful to include something sweet, like jam, chocolate, honey, or seasonal fruit, and something salty, such as charcuterie, pickles, or olives.   Don’t forget to incorporate a crunchy element, like marcona almonds, banana chips, or flatbread crackers.  For considerable pulchritude, annex a few items that pop with vibrant color.  Dried apricots, Castelvetrano olives, pomegranate arils, sugared cranberries, and Peppadews all provide that visual wow factor.  Tossing in fresh herbs, like rosemary or lavender, teases up the platter and aromatically stimulates.  I like to plug in fresh herbs at the end to fill in space and provide dimension.

Remember to provide a vessel on which these delectables can travel.  I enjoy fresh bread or muted crackers.  Fresh bread is irresistible, though it can sometimes take away from the cheese and accoutrements.  Crackers that have minimally added ingredients are an ideal bearer for cheese.  They merely carry the contents of the platter into the nosher’s mouth and provide crispness.  For gluten free people, providing fruit like pears and apples can be a replacement for the wheatier eats, though you would want to add them to the cheese board right before time of serving. 

If you still feel like you do not have the time or the platter savvy, trust me, your cheesemonger LOVES to do it for you.  I encourage you, though, to practice in the off season. Get nimble; be prepared for next year’s holiday festivities.   Make cheeseboards for your family.  Eating peasant food arranged into a work of art never gets dull for dinner.  Play with flavors and textures that appeal to you.  Now that you know how simple it can be to create an artistic plate of fromage, all that you need to do is keep at it and have fun.  I assure you the party guests will marvel at your work.  Happiest of holidays, cheese lovers, and platter on!

 

Rachael Lucas with cheese wheels MUG

Editor’s note:   Rachael Lucas is an American Cheese Society Certified Cheese Professional (CCP).  She also has the distinction of being one of forty-six people in the country with the ACS C.C.S.E. (Certified Cheese Sensory Evaluator) accreditation.  You can most often find her cheesemongering in the Seattle area.  When she's not working with cheese, she's eating it, talking about it, reading about it, writing about it, and dreaming about it.  She can be reached with inquiries about fromage and food excitement in the Seattle area at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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