Artisanally made European cheeses are an inexplicable pleasure. Funky, stinky, some almost-unbearable; and yet this delights me and my British and Beijing friends (the former because it's a luxury, even for a friend who requested I make put one together for his birthday party last summer -- despite having full-time kitchen staff at his palatial home; the latter because it's unusual to find as many varieties here in Beijing as there are in the U.K. and Europe, and even more unusual to be treated to one at a dinner gathering).
Cheese even drove my vegan friend to to forge a compromise, draw more unabashed pleasure from life, and go from full ascetic to noble lacto-ovo vegetarian.
How to Put Together a Cheese Board:
These are my tips -- by no means professional or accredited from any institution of the dairy arts -- on how to put together a cheese platter, based on 6 years of living in the pan-European cheese hub that is London* as well as attending French family dinners. Here's what I did for our French-themed dinner party menu.
- Choose at least three very different varieties of cheese to make your cheese board interesting (even if it’s only for two people to enjoy). Here in Beijing I scoped out the Western supermarket April Gourmet as well as Sanyuanli (三元里) market in Beijing.
- For this dinner party I used typical French cheeses including Brie (soft, creamy with a very mild flavor); Roquefort (like blue cheese but with emerald-green veins, salty, sharp and pungent in an acidic way and pairs well with pear and other sweet jams); Chèvre (very soft and creamy, slightly crumbly goat’s milk cheese); and St Paulin (bright-orange washed rind, soft but firmer than Brie with a buttery and slightly bitter, nutty flavor).
- Accessorize: I like using Carr’s “Table Water Crackers” because they are thin and neutral-tasting. I also like 1-cm-thick sliced and toasted baguette, Scottish oatcakes, fancy charcoal biscuits, fresh seedless grapes, fresh figs, walnuts, dried fruit, honey, quince jam or apricot jam.
- Use a black slate or beautiful wooden board to present your cheeses
- Lay some large cleaned leaves (grape or fig leaves work best). If you can’t find real fruit leaves, you can buy realistic-looking leaf-shaped sticky notes online. They give an elegant, natural look to your platter and lend the cheeses a dignified landing pad (rather than the appearance of having been thrown bare-arsed onto the serving board).
- Offer at least two different cheese knives so you can keep the flavours of the strong cheeses separate from the milder ones.
- Most importantly, be adventurous. Seek out weird, funky or even scary-looking cheeses you've never tried before. Variety is key and a talking point; the cheeses are like guests at your party, each with their own personality and backstory. Even the weird ones are entertaining! Friends and I, especially when enjoying the inevitable surplus of day-after cheeses remaining, like to point and choose and identify "that cheese, the really good one I can't believe you haven't tried yet," and "that one you should really shove into a sock and fling to the far corners of the garden."
*If you travel to London, I recommend checking out three places that are my particular favourite for experience, variety and convenience: La Cave à Fromage; Borough Market; and the Waitrose Cheese Room in the lower-level FoodHall (sic) of the John Lewis department store on Oxford Street (in London, England, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, planet Earth, etc., etc.)