Cheese with Ease: Experts offer tips sure to perk up any party
As the holidays approach, the days ahead promise get-togethers with close friends, family, colleagues and neighbors. By tradition, many of these up here in Northern Michigan are potluck. For myself, a cheesemaker and cheese lover, an elegant cheese plate is my go-to contribution to a gathering.
WHEN IN FRANCE . . .
Until I moved back to help start Idyll Farms, I spent most of my adult life in France, a land where visitors are just as likely to turn up at your door with a hunk of cheese as a bottle of wine. Cheese is part of nearly every meal (except breakfast)–generally coming at the end, before or instead of dessert. A cheese course could be familiar and reassuring–a favorite local goat cheese that you pick up every week from a well-known vendor at market, a classic Roquefort or Comté–or it could be a chance to ooh and ahh over a rare find.
Thus, at a casual meal you might be offered a round of goat cheese, a portion of Camembert and a slice of Cantal, with nothing else on the plate but a knife (if that). Bread will be in a basket and wine will be in your glass. In the fall, fresh, sweet grapes might be brought out, but in general, the course is simply cheese.
For an elegant meal, the choices will be broader and of a higher quality. Perhaps a raw milk Brie de Meaux oozing rich yellow paste under a cracking white-beige rind; a small-producer Roquefort, rare and potent; a washed-rind Pont Eveque, glorious in its sticky, orange pungency; an aged, smooth and nutty Ossau Iraty sheep cheese from the Pyrenees.
Have you noticed that I've not listed any extras? No chutneys, no jams, no jellies, no nuts, no dried fruits, no crackers. For the French, cheese is cheese, and is served alone (if you don't count the bread and wine).
A French cheese tray is built along one of three principles.
The first is to offer a sample from each major cheese style: bloomy rind, soft center such as a Brie or Camembert; hard-aged such as a Cheddar or Comté, washed-rind such as a Munster or Pont Eveque, a blue such as a Fourme d'Ambert or–the king of cheeses, Roquefort–and something fresh and light, such as a little goat cheese.
The second principle would be to present a cheese from each primary animal of the cheese world: cow, goat and sheep. The third, and what you will come across most often, would be a small selection of what can be found at the local market.
But, I don't live in France anymore. I live here, in upper Lower Michigan, a region with great local foods, wonderful offerings, excellent restaurants and devoted foodies. As I look around and check in with colleagues, I see cheese trays transformed into mosaics of color and texture, patterns and flavors–savory, sweet and buttery. These fantastic new interpretations of cheese trays are a sight to behold, and tantalize the taste buds.
And so I set out to explore these cheese trays looking towards our local cheesemakers and cheese shops as guides.
My first stop was The Cheese Lady in Traverse City. Tina Zinn opened her shop on West Front Street just two years ago. There she stocks a wide selection of domestic and international cheeses from the most delicate to the most pungent, gleefully offering samples to the curious cheese lover.
Throughout holiday season she prepares numerous cheese trays weekly. And as she does so, she follows a mantra: "Something old, something new, something goat and something blue." When considering presentation, the needs of the cheese guide her. Her first preference is to leave a cheese portion whole, proposing an appropriate cheese knife. She might slice the cheeses (last minute), but never cubes them. To fill out the tray she adds dried fruit, Marcona almonds, and often a ramekin of pear or fig jam. Crackers might be served on the side, or added to the tray at the very last minute. Her favorite crackers are the crispy Almondina she gets from an artisan in Ohio and Effie's Oat Cakes.
When looking at trays specifically for the holidays, Tina advises, "Dare to be different. Be creative. Do some fun stuff for your trays. Tomatillo and red pepper jellies can be added to a Boucherolle chèvre, or atop a Manchego. But," she continues, "don't make it complicated. There are too many events to go to. Come in and get two cheeses, put them on a tray with crackers and a bit of jelly, make it fancy and keep it simple."
That's great advice for the season when parties seem to pop up every weekend and many a weeknight! Tina is getting in a few special cheeses for the holidays; one such is Perlagrigia Sotto Cenere from Veneta, Italy, with the Christmassy spices and a note of rich truffles. I bet she'll also have a nice selection of Idyll Farms' goat cheeses, including her favorite ash-dusted Mont Idyll.
On the other side of town is Manny's Specialty Cheese, where I find Manny Gualco at his cheese counter. The bell atop the door jangles upon the departure of a happy client, hands full of cheese selections, and I settle in to discuss cheese tray philosophy.
Manny has been a cheese monger for seven and a half years. Though originally from Detroit, he was in California when the cheese bug got him and he developed his cheese knowledge and palate there. Now settled in Traverse City these past four years, his little cheese shop on Eighth Street has become a destination stop on the east side. Manny has worked with a number of local wineries, organizing cheese pairings to their wines and selecting options to be sold on site during wine tastings.
"I like my cheese trays to be, I don't know if the word is artistic, but orderly, neatly arranged. I'm not a fan of putting crackers on them. Crackers on a tray absorb moisture and get soggy. I don't put signs on cheeses either. I rarely put more than four choices. I don't care to cube or slice it all up unless that is requested–the cheeses will simply dry out. I like to put on fruit. I wish I could put apples, but of course they would turn brown before they've even left the shop. Concord grapes are delicious and beautiful, also figs, glazed apricots, Marcona almonds. Everything on the tray must be edible."
As I ask for specifics, Manny shares some of his favorites. "A classic combination, without special requests, might be a three-year cheddar, a Dutch aged gouda, a soft triple cream Délice de Bourgogne, and perhaps a flavored cheese such as a rosemary Asiago. Or, I might suggest a goat cheese, such as Midnight Moon Goat Gouda from Cypress Groves, or a mild blue such as Cambozola."
MAKING IT LOCAL
For many years, our region boasted but one local cheesemaker and cheese: Leelanau Cheese and their gold medal Swiss Style Raclette. In the past four years, two more have emerged: Idyll Farms in Northport, noted for their delicious goat Camembert and wide selection of rind-aged goat cheeses including the Idyll Gris; and Boss Mouse Cheese in Kingsley, featuring a selection of cow milk cheeses from cheddars to Swiss style, flavored Goudas and cheese curds.
All three live and breathe cheese, so I asked them how they offer their cheeses, if they had favorite condiments, and what they might be bringing with them to a party this holiday season.
Amy Spitznagel, owner of Idyll Farms, replied, "It's a challenge to find something that doesn't work with Idyll Farms goat cheese! I just look at what's in season. In the fall? A slice of Idyll Gris on an apple is a favorite. I love designing a cheese board around our Mont Idyll truncated pyramid. It adds extra geometry to a plate and if I do pre-slice for easy serving at a party, I try to maintain the shape as much as I can so that guests can appreciate the size, shape and rind development. I surround the cheeses with fresh or dried fruit, nuts, pickled vegetables, chutneys or charcuterie and throw in a sprig of fresh herbs or flowers to dress it up. A little goes a long way!"
Amy points out that the new and trendy paddle-style cheese boards are great for a party. "You can load them up and easily pass them across a dinner table." She also makes use of the occasion to teach her guests about her cheeses. "The classic slate board or write-on papers are fun to write in the name, milk type, place of origin and even the date and age of the cheese."
Over at Leelanau Cheese, owner Anne Hoyt explains to me the art of her "theme and variations" version of a cheese plate. Anne and her husband, John, focus their cheesemaking efforts on one style of cheese, raclette. However, that said, they experiment with various additions such as rosemary, green peppercorns and, new this year, black truffles.
Anne is quite specific as to how she accompanies her cheeses. "The perfect match to our aged raclette is American Spoon Foods Pear Preserves." Cheese expert and author Laura Werlin suggested this pairing years ago, and Anne has sworn by it ever since.
"Then we also like to put the Portobello Mushroom Relish with the mild raclette on toast or a baguette. Olives are good to put with the cheeses too. Cornichon pickles give a bit of acidity–which contrasts and gives a crunch I find perfect with a good cheese. They are fun and you can always have a little bowl of them in the center of the plate."
Anne is of the opinion that you should make the platter easy for guests to serve themselves. As such, she avoids knives and spoons, and prefers to pre-cut her cheeses. At most, place napkins within reach she says.
"Keep it simple and not too many ingredients. Cheese trays are about the cheese and not about all the little things." (Though, she did confess that she likes walnuts and fresh fruit.) "In Switzerland, [where she and John learned to make raclette] you'd be served rye bread with pears, apples and walnuts with your cheese. Which is pretty much a complete meal."
Anne comes from the French tradition of serving cheese at the end of the meal. And in her home that is generally when you would be served it, alongside the salad. However, cocktail parties are an exception and for many of us take the place of many a meal during holiday season.
One of Anne's favorite party options is her Fromage Blanc atop a cucumber slice with a burst of color–either a cherry tomato or a slice of bell pepper: "A refreshing contrast to the heavier foods during the holidays– and gluten free as well."
Sue Kurta, owner and cheesemaker at Boss Mouse Cheese, calls herself "a wholly and completely American New School cheesemaker. My style of cheesemaking is modern and spontaneous. I've traveled the world, but I don't fashion what I do on what I've seen elsewhere. I don't follow rules. I'm much more fluid and inspired. I deeply believe there's many ways to do anything. It's my philosophy of life, whether it's your style or your politics."
Sue created a Boss Mouse Cheese plate for me to admire (and salivate over) that is typical of what she puts together upon request. With crackers on the side in her favorite squirrel basket, she detailed the plate's contents: Boss Mouse smoked cheddar, hot-n-spicy salt, salt and pepper and jalapeno jack cheese curds, mini grilled cheese sandwiches fried in smoked butter on Stone House Baguette. Ann's Tomato Chutney from the farmers' market. Natural Northern Whitefish Dip, VerSnyder Orchards Honeycrisp apples– more good friends from the Traverse City farmers' market. And, to fill it out, dried dates and cherries.
"Most people have a lot of components in their cupboards for a cheese platter already. Different things. I always call it 'this and that.' You don't have to cook. You probably have pickles, mustards, dried fruit, crackers. Gather what you have. It doesn't have to be expensive. There's no recipe to it. It will be different every time. Have sweet, salty, colorful, fresh, buy some great local cheeses: Boss Mouse, Idyll, Leelanau Raclette. You can't do it wrong, in my opinion."
And on that note, I'm inspired to play, experiment, create and compose some smashing cheese plates this season. May you be too!
WHERE TO FIND:
Idyll Farms, Northport
farmers' markets, area stores and statewide;
Boss Mouse Cheese, Kalkaska
farmers' markets, area stores, online and statewide;
Leelanau Cheese, Suttons Bay
farmers' market, area stores, online and at their retail store, 3324 S. West Bay Shore Dr.;
The Cheese Lady
600 W. Front St., Traverse City; 231-421-9600
Manny's Specialty Cheese
1132 E. Eighth St., Traverse City;
And in Petoskey:
Petoskey Cheese, 437 E. Mitchell St.;
Madeleine Hill Vedel plunged into the culinary world during her 20 years in Provence. Back in Michigan since 2012, she spends her time writing, translating, making cheese and walking goats in the woods. Read more of her travels and thoughts at BecomingAFromagere.com and American-in-Avignon.blogspot.com.