Cheese platters don’t have to be boring. With just the tiniest bit of effort (meaning think outside the pre-cut Costco cheese box), you can bring some wow to this entertaining standard. It’s time to up your cheese game.
Props are important to the overall success of this DIY, so start with a great cheese board. This can be anything from wood to slate to acrylic resin, but preferably something on the larger side, as that gives the cheese room to breathe, both literally and figuratively. Condiment bowls for chutneys, mustards and preserves could be anything from cool ramekins and small mason jars to funky ceramics or gorgeous sterling pieces. Proper cheese knives for cutting, slicing and spreading are a plus (Laguiole cheese knives fit the bill nicely), but of course, it’s all a backdrop for the main event: fabulous, perfectly ripened cheese.
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When building your cheese plate, balance is critical. Nationally renowned cheese expert and food importer Sofia Solomon of Chicago’s Tekla, Inc. suggests varying the milk source (cow, goat, sheep), color and texture when making your choices. “Seasonality is important, so [choose] fresh and delicate goat’s and sheep’s milk cheeses in the spring and summer, [and] robust cow’s and sheep’s milk cheeses in the fall and winter,” Solomon says. “One spectacular cheese with several accompaniments would make a simple yet elegant statement, such as a Carles Roquefort with walnuts, fresh pears and pain de campagne, especially for the winter months.”
Pick and Choose
For a grand cheese platter, five distinct cheeses of varying textures and flavors are optimal. Choose one from each category — smooth triple crème, stinky washed rind, tangy soft goat, nutty aged, and a tasty firm cheese. Some to consider:
- Triple Crème: Brillat-Savarin; Fromager d’Affinois; St. Andrè; Explorateur
- Washed Rind: Camembert; Pont-l’Évêque; Taleggio; Cowgirl Creamery Red Hawk
- Soft Goat: Humboldt Fog; Crottin de Chavignol; Capriole Sofia; Montrachet
- Aged: Parmigiano Reggiano; Manchego; Aged Gouda; Vella Dry Jack; Mimolette
- Firm: Cabot Clothbound Cheddar; Brebis d’Ossau; Kerrygold Cashel Blue Farmhouse Cheese; Antique Gruyère; Pleasant Ridge Reserve
Other grouping options might be a country- or region-specific selection (i.e., France, Italy, Northern California, Midwest), or perhaps a tasting of sheep’s milk cheeses of varying color and texture.
To accompany the cheese, opt for complementary flavors. Certain pairings are can’t-miss classics, such as Manchego with membrillo quince paste and Marcona almonds, but feel free to experiment. That’s the joy of this exercise.
- Fruit: Thinly sliced pears; fresh figs; tiny Champagne grapes; dried apricots
- Nuts: Marcona almonds; caramelized walnuts; roasted hazelnuts
- Condiments: Grainy mustard; membrillo (quince paste); chutney; tomato or fig jam; fruit mostarda
- Carbs: Crostini; crackers (be sure to offer a gluten-free option); baguette or epi; thin slices of dense raisin or nut bread; carta di musica
Perhaps the most important thing to remember: Cheese should be served at room temperature. Prepare the platter at least an hour prior to service. Cheese needs to breathe. If there are leftovers, wrap them in cheese storage paper to preserve flavor and keep them vital.
Where to Buy
There’s no excuse for mediocrity when there is such a bounty of great artisanal cheese available. Remember: The cheesemonger is your friend. Visit one of these stores and don’t be afraid to ask for tastes before purchasing. That’s why they’re there. Let them know what you like, and what the occasion is. They are only too happy to turn you on to new cheeses that excite them that you might not yet know about.
Hundreds of cheeses from around the world — with a concentration of Italian formaggi, of course — are available here, and the prices are surprisingly reasonable. 231 E. Wisconsin Ave., Lake Forest, 847-482-0100
Specializing in local artisan and farmstead cheeses, Local Foods has the feel of a high-end indoor farmers’ market. The cheesemongers are extremely knowledgeable and happy to talk you through their selection with plenty of samples. 1427 W. Willow St., Chicago, 312-432-6575
If Italian cheese is your thing, Eataly is paradiso. You’ll find Chicago’s most extensive selection of Parmigiano Reggiano, Pecorino, mozzarella di buffala, burrata, and more. This is one-stop shopping for all of your cheesy needs. 43 E. Ohio St., Chicago, 312-521-8700
If you live in the south or west suburbs of Chicago, Marion Street is a great resource. You’ll find a well-curated assortment of cut-to-order cheese, including many Midwest farmstead cheeses. 100 S. Marion St., Oak Park, 708-725-7200
Cheese is a true calling, and that couldn’t be more evident than at any of Pastoral’s locations. Each piece of cheese has a story, and the fromagers here know them all. 2945 N. Broadway, Chicago, 773-472-4781; 53 E. Lake St., Chicago, 312-658-1250; Chicago French Market, 131 N. Clinton St., Chicago, 312-454-2200
You can never go wrong with the cheese selection at the nearest Whole Foods, but the new Evanston/Green Bay Road store takes it a step further with a jaw-dropping display of international and American cheeses. Fun fact: Whole Foods Market’s Global Cheese buyer, Cathy Strange, is a former president of the American Cheese Society. They are SERIOUS about the fromage here. 2748 Green Bay Road, Evanston, 847-424-5700, and other locations
Cheese platters photographed by Kerri Sherman at Farmhouse Evanston.
Food styling by Julie Chernoff.
Cheeses, fruits and condiments courtesy of Whole Foods Market Green Bay Road (Evanston).