Wine and cheese is one of the most popular pairings for entertaining at home. Or, you know, hanging out on the couch alone on a Saturday night. Either way, pairing wine and cheese can be intimidating when there is so much information out there about how to select and serve your perfect pairings. We’ve called upon some of the cheesiest pros we know to help you navigate the cheese counter from the brie to the gouda.
“It is always good to consider contrasts in both flavor and texture when serving cheeses. However, the context of the occasion, usually deserves the most thought,” said Matt Reilly, cheesemonger at Eataly Chicago. “Consider making selections based on the significance of the cheese’s origin. This honors the occasion by choosing cheeses that come from the same place as an important guest’s family or a place that you visited with your guest. Sense memories add depth to any occasion, and choosing a cheese that draws on memories not only brings you back to a special place, but also acts as a springboard for conversation.”
1. Decide when you want to serve your cheese plate.
If you are hosting a casual cocktail party for a large group of people, serve your cheese in the beginning of the evening — or even as the main event. Select a cheese board that can hold enough cheese for your party (we love slate cheese boards so you can write the name or variety of cheese next to it, but you could also serve your cheese on a large bamboo cutting board or whatever you have on hand in your kitchen).A cheese board can be prepared in advance, is more casual and allows your guests to nibble before you serve any entrees.
When preparing a cheese board, serve big pieces and ensure that there is a specific knife for each cheese. Depending on the amount of cheeses you are serving, you may wish to divide the cheeses amongst more than one board. Just before your guests arrive, cut a few slices of cheese to encourage people to help themselves.
If you want to serve cheese at the end of your meal, consider a cheese course, a more formal alternative better suited for a dinner party. You can introduce the cheese as a dessert option or as a course during the meal proceedings. When arranging your cheese plate, place the cheeses in a clockwise arrangement ranging from mildest to strongest (the first cheese should be pointing at 12 o’clock). A cheese course should include some accompaniments, but not to the extent of a cheese board. A small selection of preserves or honey is perfect, especially to add sweetness as a dessert.
Pro Tip: Accessorize! As delicious as cheese boards look standing alone, adding accompaniments such as crackers, bread, honey and nuts will make your cheese board irresistible.
2. Select your cheeses.
This is where the fun starts. There are no hard and fast rules to choosing cheese (although sometimes, we wish there were…). The most important thing to do is trust your taste buds when you find a combination you like. When you visit the cheese counter at your local grocery store or cheese shop, ask the cheese monger if you can sample some cheeses that you haven’t yet tried. Most will oblige, and may even suggest other cheeses to complement and contrast with your favorites.
When selecting your cheese, try and create a sense of harmony. Pairing dominant flavors and textures with more delicate options will result in overpowering and an inevitable loss for one. Lydia Burns, senior buyer at Pastoral cheeses recommends capping your plate at five cheeses or three exceptional cheeses. “Five cheeses will allow you to cover the main styles without creating overkill,” said Burns. “Aim to highlight an array of cheeses, but also be mindful of your crowd. If you have a more adventurous guest list, incorporate cheese from the three main animals in cheese; sheep, cow and goat. You will want to look to create a variety such as in texture.”
3. Select the accompaniments to serve with your cheese.
Accompaniments help to bring out subtle flavors in cheeses and the right combinations create wonderful texture contrasts, like a fusion of sweet and sharp or soft and crunchy. Bread and crackers are a traditional favorite, but put a bit of thought into what kinds will work with your selected cheeses. Balance is key here, because a strong cheese works best with a neutral mate such as crusty bread to create some neutrality. Likewise, a softer cheese will be lost amongst the depth of a highly infused cracker. If you opt for nuts, serve a salty mix that will add variety alongside a creamy cheese. The juxtaposition of textures can help you pick up on flavors that would otherwise be too subtle to detect.
Fruit, jams and chutney are great friends of cheese. Fresh options such as grapes and apple bring color and will allow your guests to pick as they please. Figs and dried cranberries can pair with cheese to offer a sweeter or dessert option. A strong cheese like stilton baked with a fresh pear or dried figs creates an amazing contrast between flavors. Preserves, such as raspberry compote, work incredibly with gooey cheeses like brie or soft chevre. Chutneys provide a savory alternative from jams and most contain spices that work well with hearty cheeses like cheddar. To bring some Spanish flair and color to your cheese board, think salty: thinly cut serrano ham or salami and an assortment of olives provide variety in texture and can serve as a family style tapas alternative to a regular cheese board. Opting for this route can turn your cheese board into a complete meal.
4. Select your beverage pairing.
You do not want to pick a strong or full bodied drink that can drown out your carefully selected cheeses. Burns recommends a medium-bodied white wine with an array of cheeses. White wine can complement the fresher and more delicate cheeses, but will pair well with the aged choices. Red wine can also work, but full-bodied reds are tricky to pair as they need a strong cheese to stand up to them. Beer, although not always the first thing that comes to mind when it comes to cheese, can cleanse the palette of any buildup with its carbonation. Since you don’t want aggresive hops to overpower your cheese, a pale ale can be a safe and an enjoyable pairing. When in doubt, a sparkling wine like Prosecco or Cava is always a safe bet.