So you’ve done the whole wine and cheese thing, have you? Uncorked a few bottles of Pinot, laid out a baguette and few wedges of the stinky stuff and called it a night? You can do better than that! Next time, take a more thematic approach and compose your cheese plate by country, for example. Think about it: when you dine out at a French restaurant, you’d never expect to see mozzarella or manchego on the cheese list. So why not adopt the same line of thinking chez vous?
Drawing inspiration from Andrew Carmellini’s three restaurants and their three different types of cuisine — Locanda Verde (Italian), Lafayette (French) and The Dutch (New American) — where the dairy offerings are proof that you don’t need to go all over the map to compose a cheese plate rife with contrasting characteristics, flavors, textures and aesthetics, here’s a sampling from the three nations. Jason Donnelly of Murray’s Cheese imparts some thoughts on French and Italian cheeses, and for the New World stuff coming from our home turf (the land of the red, white and bleu), Anne Saxelby of Saxelby Cheese lends insight on this delicious subject too. More below.
All-American Cheese Board
The difference between New World and Old World traditions alone are worth considering a more strategic trip to the cheesemonger: “I think with American cheesemaking, there’s a willingness to experiment and break the rules a little bit…a willingness to try different flavor combinations and treatments,” notes Anne Saxelby of Saxelby Cheese, which specializes in selling only American farmstead cheeses.
1. Bonne Bouche (Vermont Butter and Cheese, VT) Goat; lactic, musky, yeasty.
2. Hudson Flower (Old Chatham Sheepherding, NY) Sheep; bright, herbaceous, floral.
3. Rupert (Consider Bardwell Farm, VT) Raw cow; bold, fruity, caramelly.
4. Square Cheese (Twig Farm, VT) Raw goat; vegetal, earthy, goaty; “This is always one of my favorites. The supply is extremely limited because they only have about 30 goats. And the cheesemaker is such an artist. He gets these flavors from the goats’ milk that are so complex and amazing. You’re always gonna get a deeper, more complex flavor from raw goat’s milk.”
5. Grayson (Meadow Creek Dairy, VA) Raw cow; beefy, buttery, pungent; “This is a seasonal cheese because they only make it when their cows are out in pasture.”
6. Red Rock (Roelli Cheese, WI) – Cow; butterscotchy, sharp, chocolatey. “This is actually a cheddar-blue hybrid. It’s dyed with annatto seed to get that bright orange color. Visually, it really pops out on a plate.”
7. Ewe’s Blue (Old Chatham Sheepherding, NY) – Sheep; silky, winy, peppery.
Building a cheese plate: “I like variety,” says Saxelby. “I try to have one representative from each of the three milks: cow, goat and sheep. I like to have one soft, one firm, one stinky or blue cheese. The aesthetics are important too. It’s nice to have cheeses with different styles of rinds, textures, colors.”
Seasonality: “In the summertime we’re flush with all these great fresh cheeses. And in summer, you tend to want lighter fare in general. The cheese is lighter, a little tangier, a little more refreshing versus the wintertime, when you might want to dig into dense, aged cheeses — some really stinky stuff.”
On raw milk cheeses: “In general, I think you’re always going to get a more special cheese from raw milk versus pasteurized.”
French Cheese Plate
“Texture is a big thing. Alternating textures and milk is very important when looking at a plate, and also for your palate. One of the biggest draws to French cheese is that it is always the same —very good technique, and consistent. This can also be the drawback.” —Jason Donnelly of Murray’s Cheese
1. Torus (Vermont) Goat; Actually a domestic-made cheese by Vermont Butter & Cheese Creamery; young, dense and creamy, with a lush balance of salty and earthy flavors. It’s not French per se, but this is a crowd favorite.
2. Brin de Bleecker (NYC) Sheep; “This is a special project we did with Lafayette. It’s a play on the Corsican cheese Brin d’Amor or Fleur du Maquis. We crust fresh sheep’s milk cheese from Old Chatham Sheepherding Co., and crust the outside with a secret belend of herbs, then age the cheese for about four weeks to develop the rind and allow the herbs to influence the flavor.”
3. Pyrénées Brebis (Aquitaine) Sheep; Firm and smooth with sweet and nutty undertones.
4. Tomme de Savoie (Rhone-Alpes) Cow; From the mountainous Alps region of Savoie; earthy and tangy.
5. Fourme d’Ambert (Auvergne) Cow; A less aggressive blue cheese than Roquefort; sweet, earthy, mushroomy.
Italian Cheese Plate
“Italians are notorious for not following rules. They made some of the most recognizable cheeses in the world—Parmesan, Gorgonzola, Taleggio—but they also are incredibly open to trying new techniques and making cheese that is different or unique.” —Jason Donnelly of Murray’s Cheese
1. Brunet (Piedmonte) Goat; super-smooth and rich; tangy with some straw undertones.
2. Salva Cremasco (Lombardia) Cow; dense and crumbly texture; clean and milky with a distinct saltiness.
3. Bianco Sardo (Sardinia) Sheep; firm but creamy; complex, earthy, salty.
4. Fontina Val d’Aosta (Valle d’Aosta) Cow (made from raw cow’s milk); Semi-firm; earthy, rich, nutty, toasty; pairs nicely with sweet accompaniments like dried fruits or even chocolate.
5. Quadrello di Bufala (Lombardia) Water buffalo; Creamy with a somewhat sticky texture; sweet, grassy, pungent;
6. Blu di Bufala (Lombardia) Water buffalo; Decadent and buttery (buffalo milk is nearly twice as fatty as cow milk); mellow and less salty compared to other blues; deep and subtly nutty.
7. Gorgonzola Mountain (Lombardia) Cow; firm and creamy in texture; spicy, earthy, sharp; compared to dolce types of gorgonzola this one has bite.