If you’re looking for a perfect nibble to keep family and friends’ hunger at bay while you’re busy putting the turkey in the oven and mashing the potatoes, think cheese.
For centuries Europeans have served cheese before, during or after a feast.
“Americans are starting to see cheese for what it is,” says Lincoln Broadbooks, an American Cheese Society certified cheese expert. He works at the Better Cheddar gourmet specialty shop in Prairie Village, where he oversees 200 to 250 cheese selections from the United States and beyond.
Cheese offers complex flavors. It’s downright delicious. And it’s an easy way to entertain.
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To get ready for the Thanksgiving kickoff to the holiday season, we asked Broadbooks to pick five perfect cheeses for a pre-feast cheese board. We then shared his selections with wine expert and Star columnist Doug Frost, who came up with wines to complement each.
And if you’re the host or hostess, you’re in luck: This time of year, retailers stock a huge variety of cheese boards. Most of this year’s surfaces are inspired by rich-grained woods and rustic farmhouse-style materials:
▪ Williams-Sonoma’s website features almost two dozen wood, marble or slate cheese boards.
▪ Crate & Barrel sells cheese boards aplenty, plus a chunky set of farmhouse-style cast-iron cheese knives that look like they’ve just been forged on an anvil.
▪ Better Cheddar offers a selection of stunning salvaged hardwoods by Wild Woods Cutting Boards of Kansas City that are perfect for the task.
But when it comes to figuring out which cheeses to put on those boards, we wondered if a stylish arrangement was enough. Or are there hidden rules the novice should follow?
“There are not a lot of rules, and they seem to change a lot,” Broadbooks says. “It is about what tastes good first, and from there you can think about different colors and textures.”
A simple grouping of three cheeses might include a soft ripened cheese like goat cheese, a semi-hard cheese like Gouda and a hard cheese, such as cheddar or Parmesan. Broadbooks also recommends mixing up the type of milk, such as cow, goat and sheep.
If you want to go with as many as five cheeses, consider adding a blue cheese and, one of Broadbooks’ personal faves, a “stinky” washed rind cheese, like Pont l’Eveque.
Unless you’re serving a large group, resist the temptation to cut the cheese into cubes. Instead, Broadbooks prefers to put out hunks of cheeses and let everyone cut their own portion sizes. For the task, dedicated cheese knives are helpful but not essential; a sharp paring knife will get you through, although it’s nice to have a separate knife for blue or stinky cheeses.
If you do buy a set of cheese knives, it’s more important that they have some heft than to have one for every type of cheese.
How to best transfer the cheese to your plate? Well, that depends on the intimacy of the group: family and friends might use fingers, while guests might prefer toothpicks or stabbing the cheese with the knife. Bottom line: Whatever works for you.
Which isn’t to say that Broadbooks doesn’t have a healthy respect for tradition. “One of the things that attracts me to cheese is I do like the traditional ways these cheeses are made,” Broadbooks says. “You have to respect older, more traditional cheeses to understand what newer cheese people are doing because most of those cheeses are somebody else’s take on a traditional cheese.”
Sure, wine is a traditional match for cheese, and craft beers also pair well. But Broadbooks says if your friends and family are teetotalers, there are several blogs, including madamfromageblog.com, teamuse.com and tillamook.com, that offer suggestions for pairing cheese with a cup of tea. Options include such adventurous sips as roasted genmaicha, five-year aged pu-erh, lapsang souchong, sencha or spiced chai.
“I’ve tried a few, and it’s actually pretty interesting,” Broadbooks says.
Wine and Cheese Pairings
Doug Frost | Master of Wine, Master Sommelier
As someone who insists that taste and preference in wine are strictly personal and that readers should drink what they like as they wish, I am about to talk out of both sides of my mouth. I think that cheese is rather unforgiving with certain wines and that people can render their favorite wine a bit less than interesting with certain kinds of cheese.
Take blue cheese: it is laden with saltiness and an element we call umami, a glutamate that creates a rich, lingering flavor. Culinarians have chosen to describe umami as a “savory” flavor; I think they have it wrong. Umami flavors are “brothy” like rich soups and stews, like soy or Worcestershire sauces. In most stews, the umami is balanced by salt, sweet carbohydrate flavors, powerful proteins and scrumptious fats. Big red wines are just another powerful voice in this resonant chorus.
But a single slice of blue cheese with your favorite Cabernet, and it’s like a bass singer just went castrati. Try instead a simple, creamy cheese: all milk fat, a bit of salt and nothing else to get in the way. Your favorite Napa Cabernet loses none of its volume and might even become more seductive than overpowering.
Goat cheese is another cautionary tale: typically high in acidity, it seems to make the dryness of a big red wine go vicious, from a bracing rasp to No. 2 sandpaper in a single bite. Give goat cheese a fruity white wine and nothing of the sort happens. The wine doesn’t have to be sweet (though it can be); Sauvignon Blanc and goat cheese are cellmates in a kind of delightful lunacy together, or folie a deux, as the French would say.
Hard cheeses tend to suck the life out of many wines; white wines always fare better. I often like them to have some sweetness, but even Chardonnay does well with soft, mild white cheeses.
▪ Green Dirt Farm Tuffet with Spanish Rioja
Sheep’s milk cheeses are my favorites, and so I want to roll out a wine that sings to me as well. Spanish wine is an obsession; the Tempranillo grape does amazing things in Rioja, but wines from in and around Ribera del Duero are sleeker and fruitier at the same time. Try Abadia Retuerta Rivola, Finca Villacreces or Celeste.
▪ Pont l’Eveque with red wine
It takes a lot of fruit in a red wine to power past Pont l’Eveque’s crazy barnyard odors.
▪ Bayley Hazen Blue with Port, bourbon whiskey or Scotch whisky
Blue cheese can be a bummer, but if the wine is powerful, fruity and sweet, you’ll be fine. Port is the go-to, either Tawny Port or something fruity like Graham’s Six Grape. But if you want to try a mad and wonderful combination, try bourbon whiskey or Scotch whisky, and don’t be afraid to pull out the good stuff.
▪ Brabander Goat Gouda with Pascal Jolivet Sancerre
This Loire Valley Sauvignon Blanc is always reliable, and even the saltiness of a Gouda style can’t discourage its tangy melon and grapefruit notes from shining brightly.
▪ Cottonwood River Cheddar with Chardonnay or German Spaetlese
Crazy as this sounds, you can have this with Chardonnay and it won’t harm anyone. On the other hand, a fruity, lush German Spaetlese from one of the VDP producers (look for the black eagle on the neck capsule) will create a remarkable contrast.