Tuesday October 29, 2013 | 08:14 AM

Custom Cheese Plate

During the month of October (American Cheese Month!), The Root is embarking on a short series celebrating Maine cheese makers who have the attention of cheese lovers from near and far. The first piece in the series, featuring Spring Day Creamery, may be found here and the second on Hahn’s End here

For this series, The Root is collaborating with Shannon Tallman, American Cheese Society Certified Cheese Professional (one of two in Maine) and Specialty Cheese Buyer for Whole Foods Market.

For the third and final post in the cheese series we have created what we hope will be a handy cheese guide for your holiday parties and dinners. First - a huge thank you to Shannon, who this fall became one of 253 Certified Cheese Professionals in the US/Canada and one of two in Maine. For much of 2013 Shannon studied the science of cheese, read books about cheese, lugged around a (as she described it) 25 plus pound binder of notes and handouts from some of the many cheese-oriented presentations she attended, ate a lot of cheese, and got to meet a few cows. I encourage you to stop by the cheese counter at Whole Foods Market in Portland, Maine and say hello. She will be happy to share her passion for cheese with you by introducing you to a new cheese, talking to you about cheeses the market does not carry (but that you might find at a local farmers’ market), and telling you a story about any one of her favorite cheeses.

Serving

Whether a more formal platter (say for a fancy cocktail party) or a casual one (tailgating, book club) Shannon suggests having three to five options. “Ideally, I serve three or five, as odd numbers stand out to the eye,” she said. However, on occasion she will break this unwritten rule to create a low stress, wide variety platter like the one described here for a casual affair (all notes are Shannon’s):
• Grafton Village 4 year aged cheddar—a sharp, crumbly aged cheddar from Vermont
• York Hill Dill Chevre Roule—fresh, tangy local goat cheese rolled in fresh dill
• Sartori Balsamic Bellavatino—Domestic made parm style cheese, washed in Balsamic vinegar; has both a sweet and salty profile to it.
• Emmi Roth Kase Moody Blue—lightly smoked, lightly spicy domestic blue that is quite approachable for any palate.
Note the mix of styles - smoked, blue, fresh and aged—as well as mixed milks—goat and cow.

New England Cheese Plate

During the holidays, Shannon recommends putting together a cheese platter that shows off the best New England has to offer, because many people have family visiting from out of town.

For this board she included some of her favorites from the area (all notes are Shannon’s):
• Vermont Creamery Bijou: Light, creamy (when aged) goat button from Vermont, done in a classic French style.
• Spring Brook Raclette: While most people associate Raclette with Switzerland or France and being melted over potatoes, this one from Reading, VT is a perfect nibbling cheese with a nice bit of earth, mixed with a cheddar familiarity.
• Jasper Hill Bayley Hazen Blue: Very similar to an English Stilton, but produced with raw milk. It has a lovely anise and toasted hazelnut bite.

American Cheese Plate

The last platter is the American artisan, featuring (all notes are Shannon’s):
• Blythedale Brie: Nice mushroomy brie, similar to the strong single crème bries from France
• Grafton 2 year Cheddar: Great medium aged cheddar from Grafton (who is renowned for their cheddar)
• Humboldt Fog: Easily the most popular goat cheese we carry—outside of the fresh chevre. It’s tart, tangy, slightly salty and one of the best out there.

Cheese Notes – Suggestions and Helpful Tips

The Root - Is there any aesthetic way to approach the platters – e.g. never put a Blue by a Bloomy Rind?

Shannon - Ideally, you would want to look at your plate like a clock—with the most mild at the 12 o’clock position and then working your way around the face, increasing in intensity. If you’re doing a straight board—like the moose, then you want to work left to right, increasing in intensity. You always want your stronger cheeses, like your blue/washed rind, at the end of the plate because you want to avoid having them overwhelm your palate early on and making it harder to taste the milder cheeses at the beginning.

The Root - When do you substitute a cheese course for dessert or serve it with dessert vs. as an initial course – with appetizers?

Shannon - I would approach cheese as dessert, more than alongside dessert, or it’s own course, pre dessert. I think Bar Lola provides a lovely example of this in their “Feed Me” menu, serving the slightest bit of cheese, a taste or two, before the dessert. I think there, as well as at home, cheese can easily be used to bridge the gap between transitioning the savory/sweet courses.

I also think that the number of courses has to come into consideration—if you’re serving a tremendous amount in a set number of courses, then before dessert would be ideal. However, if you’re doing something much smaller, then having a cheese course towards the beginning might be ideal. Either way, you would probably want to serve smaller portions as we do have a tendency to fill up on cheese and bread.

Pairing Notes

The Root - What should I serve with cheese – dried and fresh fruits, charcuterie, nuts, jam, honey, crackers and bread…?

Shannon - If it’s 95 degrees out and I’m making a plate for my partner and I to have for dinner, then I’m going to make sure that there’s charcuterie, particularly salame, honey and bread. I like it to be filling, but also light.

I like to have nuts, like Marcona almonds or crisp crackers, like Leslie Stowe Raincoast Crisps because they provide a huge textural balance to the creamy texture of cheese. Generally, I don’t serve much bread with platters because it can be so heavy and dense, so I lean towards lighter crackers—like a water thin—because they take up less ‘cheese room’. Also, unless there’s a brie, blue or runny cheese, don’t serve a cracker at all.

I do like to have a sweet component on the plate with cheese, to help strike a balance, particularly with aged cheeses that tend to be saltier. Depending on your preference, it may be jam, honey or fresh fruit. I tend to lean towards honey, though, something I’ve developed a bit of an obsession with over the past few years.

Wondering what wine to serve? Following are a few suggestions from the wine department at Whole Foods Market:

Chalone Chardonnay – Monterey County, California 2011 $9.99
Pine Ridge Chenin Blank/Viognier - California 2012 $11.99
Borealis White Blend – Willamette Valley, Oregon 2011 $11.99
Erath Pinot Noir – Oregon 2011 $16.99
R Collection Lot No. 7 Field Blend – California 2011 $11.99
JaM Red Wine – Sonoma, California 2011 $17.99

I’m also including two of my favorites. They are on the sweet side, so think about these for cocktail parties or if serving cheese as part of/instead of dessert.
Eden Ice Cider – Vermont $27.99
Opera Prima Sparkling Moscato Rose – Spain $8.99

Cheese Storing Tips from Shannon

Once you break into that round of brie, you start the quality clock on it and it degrades as it sits around in plastic in our less than ideal refrigeration. But, if you do have some left over, or tend to eat a lot of cheese at quality cheese at home, invest in some cheese paper or wrap your leftovers in parchment and then put them into Tupperware or slightly opened Ziploc bags. Cheese is still living and changing, so you don’t want to suffocate it with wrapping it tightly in plastic wrap—but, you also don’t want to have it wide open, drying out and becoming useless after a day. But, one way that I use up any cheese nibbles is to grate and combine any odds and ends into one big pot of mac and cheese or risotto when they start to pile up.

About this Blog

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About the Author

Sharon Kitchens is a neo-homesteader learning the ins and outs of country living by luck and pluck and a lot of expert advice. She writes about bees for The Huffington Post and stuff she loves on her personal blog, deliciousmusings.com.

When she is not writing, she enjoys edible gardening, reading books on food and/or thinking about food, hanging out by her beehives and patiently tracking down her chickens in the woods behind her old farmhouse.

In her blog, Sharon profiles farm families, reports on farm-based education and internships, conducts Q&A's with master beekeepers, offers tips on picking a CSA, and much more.

Sharon can be contacted at kitchens.sharon@gmail.com or on Twitter @deliciousmusing.

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