As a professional cheese-monger I am constantly being asked, "I'm putting together a cheese plate for (insert event here), what should I get?" There are any number of ways that you can go about putting together a plate that will wow your guests, but here are a few of my favorite ways to do it.
* Milk Sampler *
This is one of the classic ways that people will tell you to chose cheeses for a cheese plate, usually consisting of a cow's milk cheese, a goat's milk cheese, and a sheep's milk cheese. This is nice if you don't really know the tastes of the group you are putting together a plate for, as you can get a little bit of everything. I like to make sure that there are a variety of textures represented, but you don't have to. A nice fresh goat's milk (like the Zingerman's Creamery's City Goat), a semi-soft cow's milk (a younger gouda or swiss style usually), and an aged sheep's milk (like Manchego or Vermont Shepherd) is my go-to combination.
* Regional Grouping *
This is another classic. Choose your cheeses based on country, region, or other geographical grouping. All cheeses from England, or all from Bavaria, or all from countries that your Mediterranean cruise will be stopping in. These cheeses will all likely be of the same milk(s), depending on where in the world you are sourcing from and what animals have traditionally thrived in that environment. Again, I like playing with texture if possible. Different regions in France are particularly easy to find in most cheese shops, one that I'm fond of is the Auvergne region. A cheese plate highlighting this region might have a lovely wedge of Saint Nectaire, a chunk Cantal (or Salers if you can find it), and a slice of Blu d'Auvergne. These are all cow's milk cheeses that for me really highlight each other and bring out flavors in one another that you might not notice enjoying them on their own.
* Single Producer *
This is one that I really like to do with the many fantastic American producers that are producing whole lines of cheese. Highlighting a single producer can be a great way to introduce your friends to a great cheese maker that you love. Sweet Grass Dairy in Thomasville, GA and Cowgirl Creamery in California/Washington D.C.
* Single Milk *
This is all about texture. Highlighting the things you can do with the milk from a single kind of animal give you a chance to explore the flavors and textures you get by treating the milk differently in the making and aging stages of cheese making. Cow's milk is obviously going to be the easiest one to find a large variety of cheeses in, but there are more and more great goat and sheep's milk cheeses on the market from small, artisan producers that you can find fairly easily these days. An example of this might be: Kunik from Nettle Meadow Farms (triple-cream, goat's milk base, New York made, very smooth and soft); Lincoln Log from Zingerman's Creamery (slightly aged goat's milk, french style log, Michigan made, just a bit crumbly); Queso de Vare (aged goat's milk, savory, spanish, texture like a medium dry cheddar); Ballerina Goat's Milk Gouda (aged goat's milk, gouda style, sweeter, dutch, dry and crumbly with crystalized protein crunch); and Harborne Blue through Neal's Yard Dairy (goat's milk blue, english, slightly sweet with a nice bite from the blueing).
With all of these options you will want to make sure that you have your cheeses at room temperature when you serve them. Unless your cheesemonger specifically tells you that a cheese has an ideal serving temperature, all cheeses show best at room temperature. I also like to have some dried or fresh fruit, a condiment (such as mustard or fruit preserves), and some sort of nut out with the cheeses, to be enjoyed alongside. The only other thing you need is a nice cheeseboard or plate to serve it all on and you are ready to break out a bottle of wine and enjoy the party!
P.S - If you like this post please leave me a comment here or on facebook and let me know what other cheese/cured meat/delicious food things you would like to see. I love my job and I love being able to share knowledge with people too!