Say Cheese! How to Create a Killer Cheese Tray
Celebrate the stinkiest of holidays on National Cheese Day June 4th with a cheese tray that shows off your fromage finesse.
I have cut many things out of my diet through the years for health reasons or as part of some reducing-plan-of-the-moment. But the one non-negotiable? Cheese.
A beloved indulgence, cheese is the ultimate comfort food and pleasure. I love them all: a sharp English double Gloucester, a salty, buttery Saint André, a gooey brie. And I am no snob: string cheese is a favorite snack and it hasn’t escaped my notice that some very fancy Atlanta chefs are topping their custom, covetable burgers with homemade ketchup and artisanal buns, but plain ole American cheese. Stinky, gooey, pedestrian, encased in a waxy rind or plastic, I love them all.
So naturally, of all of the quirky holidays currently larding the calendar, National Cheese Day June 4 was one I couldn’t pass up a chance to celebrate, especially when it came with an offer of some cheese tray tips from the Managing Director of CNIEL, the French Dairy Board, Charles Duque.
I applied some of Duque‘s tips to my own cheese tray featuring Roquefort, Emmental, Raclette de Scey and a Cantal (one of the oldest cheeses in France, dating back to the Gauls) for a recent gathering. I added some fig preserves, honey, pickled grapes purchased at a local canning emporium Preserving Place and some French mini-toasts, black pepper crackers and rosemary and raisin crackers. I found his suggestion to combine a pungent blue cheese with a dollop of honey particularly revelatory. I was already a big fan of honey paired with goat cheese, but found it equally well-suited to a pungent Roquefort. “Many people claim not to like blue cheese because they find it too strong,” notes Duque. “While this may be the case for some, a good cow’s milk blue is creamy and mild. If you add a sweet touch, it completely changes the perception on your palate. Examples include Bleu d ’Auvergne or Fourme d’Ambert or Saint Agur.”
While I did not follow Mr. Duque’s tips to the letter (I placed the most intense cheese at 12 o’clock, rather than the mildest, not because I'm contrary but because I was rushed and people were about to arrive), I found his suggestions incredibly helpful and the Cheeses of Europe (whose mission is to promote French cheeses in America, an agenda I can definitely get behind) literature eye-opening in expanding my appreciation of this favorite cuisine. Each cheese variety, for instance, from an Epoisses to a Comté is associated with a particular region of France, and the Appellation d’Origine (Protected Designation of Origin) means that to be called a Munster or a Brie, a European cheese must originate from an officially established region or zone of the country, much like Champagne or Burgundy.
Consider a cheese tray for your next summer get together. It’s an easy appetizer; just select an array of cheeses with different textures, flavors and milk types paired with summer fruits, nuts, charcuterie, pickles or fruit pates and go to town creating a garden-y cheese still life. Afterwards, if there is anything left, Duque advises storing the cheese thusly, “for best results, loosely wrap the cheese in cheese paper or plastic wrap to avoid losing moisture. You can place it either in the fruit or deli bins in the refrigerator.”
Want to really impress your guests? Incorporate one of the cutting-edge cheese options: “Ashed goat cheeses, Montboissier and super aged cheeses like a 36-month Comté. Cantal from the Auvergne region in Central France is my current go-to. The cheese is bright, citrusy, and perfect for summer picnics,” says Duque.
Pretty-up your cheese tray with a small bouquet of flowers from your garden. Garnish with fresh herbs. I used washed, unused plant labels to identify these cheeses.
Charles Duque’s Cheese Tray Tips
Mix it Up
“Include different textures, colors and milk types,” says Duque. “Always start with the mildest cheese and '12 o’clock' and place the cheeses clockwise in order of pungency. End with the strongest which is usually a blue cheese.”
“We suggest three to five cheeses. Mix different milk types, colors and textures. You ideally want a hard cheese, a soft cheese, a goat and a blue. Soft-ripened cheeses, like Brie or Camembert are always a hit. A creamy cow’s milk Bleu d’Auvergne is delicious and for those who squirm at the thought of blue cheese, place a drop of honey to garner rave reviews. As for a hard cheese: Comté or to add color, place a wedge of Mimolette. A triple-crème like Brillat Savarin is sure to please.”
Let the Cheese Breathe
“In order to best enjoy the flavors and aromas of a good cheese you want to remove it/them from the refrigerator an hour before serving. Once on the board cut into the various cheeses - this will encourage your guests to dig-in.”
Think Beyond the Baguette
“There are so many options when it comes to breads and crackers on the market. Be adventurous and try breads with nuts or died fruit. That said you want the cheese to shine so if you choose flavored crackers ensure they complement the cheese. Serving your cheese with edible flowers is also lovely or you can serve certain cheeses on fresh or dried fruits slices. In the summer, try serving certain cheeses on watermelon or cucumber for a fresh take or green apple in the fall.”
To Label or Not to Label?
“It really depends on the formality and size of the group. If it is an intimate dinner or get-together, you can always advise your guests yourself. If it is a big party, you may want to use labels to empower your guests to choose what they like or try something new! We like to include the name of the cheese, its origin and the type of milk – cow, goat, ewe, camel, etc.”
“Garnishes decorate and complement the cheese. You can use seasonal fruits or nuts, jams, chutneys or honeys. Of course, nut or fruit breads or wafer-thin crackers are great vessels to carry the cheese to your mouth. Flowers are nice too! For the DIY in you – why not roll some cheeses in herbs or spices. Make small goat cheese balls and roll them in pepper or curry for a delicious and visually attractive display.”
“The board itself is part of the show too! It can be wood or slate, china or a decorative tray. It can be a conversation piece just like the cheese. Design options vary and range from a jigsaw type board, to marble, glass-domed boards to a gilded cage for maximum wow factor! Dark colored boards make the cheese stand out…and do not forget the knives.”
Note: I used a long copper boot tray (one that hasn’t been used for boots, mind you) that usually sits atop my guest room ottoman, and placed the cheese on plates since the tray may not be food-safe. I have a friend who puts together a killer cheese tray by arranging everything inside an enormous handled basket and it is gorgeous, like something out of a high-end French grocery. She is my cheese tray idol.
Learn About Cheese BFFs
“Try new things and don’t be shy. Learn about the origin of the cheese and pair it with local specialties or wines from the same region. Blue cheeses usually pair well with sweet wines and accompaniments like honey. Champagne goes well with triple-crème cheeses since the astringency cleanses the palate and Camembert pairs great with cider. Every cheese has a story worth exploring.”
Take a Cue From the Europeans
"Traditionally, the cheese course was served at the end of the meal followed by a small salad. Today, cheese consumption varies throughout the day or is enjoyed as a snack. Some people make it a meal or eat it in the place of dessert. Certain blue cheeses like, Roquefort, are eaten on butter smeared baguette. Wine is traditionally served with the cheese but cider or beer also pairs well.
Cheese is alive! Europeans have access to raw-milk cheeses. These cheeses are a living product that contain beneficial bacteria which adds to our intestinal flora and aid in healthy digestive functions. Many Americans are demanding our laws evolve to make those products available in the U.S. market."