THE ULTIMATE CHEESE PLATE
“Just bring some cheese!”—Ohh, those fateful instructions. You’ve been invited to a holiday gathering or maybe you’re hosting a little event for your closest friends. IT’S ALL ABOUT THE FOOD! And it really is. It becomes the backbone of the party, a table to mingle around. But what to serve?? When it comes to menus, North Market has your back. Here is a guideline on how to put together a cheese plate that is sure to wow your guests. Cheese can be impressive, especially when everyone in the room feels you know your sh*t.
PICK YOUR PLATE
Okay—you’ve got options. You want it to be flat and preferably without a rim. This will make it easier to cut the cheese. And don’t pick the plate that you bought at the secondhand store because you liked the vintage flower motif on it. Make it plain. You want to see the CHEESE. I like using wood (preferably the one your friend hand-crafted that’s a live edge piece of Cherry). It’s just cool. And unique. But a silver platter is neat too. Just make sure it’s going to be big enough to host the main event.
PICK YOUR CHEESE
It goes without saying that this is the MOST important part. Again, you’ve got options. But PLEASE—don’t buy St Albert’s Cheddar and a wheel of Brie and think you’re doing it right. You ain’t. A few rules to follow:
1. You’re going to want 3-4 different cheeses. Plan on an ounce of each per person (1 inch by 1 inch). More if you’re not serving much else.
2. Repeat after me; FIRM, SEMI-FIRM, SOFT, GOAT, BLUE. Those are the categories to go on. Remember, your semi-firm CAN be the blue and likely the goat IS the soft. If that’s the case, then you’re free to grab one firm and call it a day. And if you don’t know the difference—just ask. It’s called customer service, they’re there to help you.
3. Think local. Honestly, Ontario and Quebec are producing some of the best cheeses in the world! Take advantage of it. Peches et Poivre (89 Mill St.) has a really impressive selection. Check them out before running out to Whole Foods.
4. Here are our current faves. They’ll all knock your socks off, so try them if you’re questioning your ability to make an educated decision.
· Le Cendre de Pres – This is a super buttery, slightly dirty, soft, cow’s milk cheese from Quebec. It’s kinda like a brie and has a vegetable ash vein running through the centre. Give it some space on the plate, it’s gonna spread as it comes up in temp.
· Lankaaster Aged Gouda – Literally the best cheese in the world. That’s the title it won this year. It’s a hard cows milk (like no gouda you’ve ever had), almost yellow in colour and has a lot of depth brought out by the aging process. It has a waxed rind that needs to be removed before hitting the plate. Oh yeah, and it’s from Lancaster, ON.
· Bleu d’Elizabeth – Semi-firm cow’s milk, salty, dirty blue cheese that’s non-pasteurized. It hails from Quebec and is a nice blue to use when you want to impress but not scare your crowd.
· Grey Owl – It’s awesome on a plate ‘cause it looks so cool and melts in your mouth once you get into it. This is a soft goat’s milk cheese from Quebec that has a bloomy rind. The contrast from the outside to the inside is quite elegant but the punchy notes of this cheese will send you into a love affair.
· Bonnechere – I did say to keep it local and Back Forty is one of the closest. Consider this your wild card. It a sheep’s milk semi-firm cheese with a toasted rind. Texturally, it’s awesome. But it is delicate. You wanna think about this one while you’re tasting it.
That’s a fancy French word for all the other things on the plate. Three things you have to include: Cracker, Sauce, Pickle. But let’s make it a little more specific. Your cracker or bread should be pretty plain. If you can’t taste the lemony notes of the Grey Owl because your cracker is roasted garlic and rosemary, what’s the point? We like to slice a baguette, toss it with some olive oil, sprinkle it with sea salt and toast it in the oven. Super simple really. If you’re not going to do that, at least buy a cracker that at the most is whole grain. Keep the black olive for the pickle section.
Now get saucy. Find a local canner who’s got something worthwhile to include with your masterpiece. At all times, North Market has three or four chutneys available. Stop by, say hi, ask us about cheese plates and pick up a Cranberry-Fig Chutney or the Indian Peach one. Whatever. A little savoury jam is nice too. Try our Sun-Gold Tomato and Onion Jam or find yourself that oh-so-pleasing Red-Pepper Jelly. Put two on the plate. Variety is the spice of life.
Choose something pickled. No, not Bick’s Dill Pickle sliced into rounds. I’m talking about that jar of Pickled Wild Leek you bought from us this past summer. Or try a jar of Garlic Scapes, Mixed Pickled Veg. Something along those lines will serve just fine.
To create a little contrast between the jarred products and the aged cheese, let’s also add some fresh fruit. Sure, you can by a package of raspberries from the grocery store that has way too little in it for the inflated $4.99 price tag on it—or you could pick up an Ontario apple (or get crazy and buy a pear!) and slice them up nice and thin. That’s perfect for a Canadian Cheese Plate in December.
It’s a silly old proverb, but it’s true: WE TASTE WITH OUR EYES FIRST. You’ve gotten this far; don’t let your cheese plate fall flat now! Give your cheeses some breathing room. Blue and Goat tend to be stronger in flavour, you don’t want them messing with the mojo of the Bonnechere. Cheese only comes in a handful of shapes, so you’re going to have to work a little at making them look interesting on the plate. With firm cheeses, cut them up. We cut the Lankaaster into thin triangular slices that you can fan out. The blues are going to crumple, so let them! I like to cut a wedge of the Grey Owl in half and rest one piece up against the other. Get some height on the plate when you can! If you purchase a cheese that is round, take a small triangular cut out of it first. You get to try it in advance and it’s a little less intimidating that way. Use small ramikins for the condiments. Group the pickles in one or two areas, and fill up spaces on the plate with your fruit. Make sure to slice apples and pears at the last minute so that they don’t brown before your fashionably late guests arrive.
DO let your cheese sit out for 20 minutes before serving. You’ll get way more of the flavour that way.
DO inform your guests of what they are eating. We already wrote tasting notes for you. USE THEM. When tasting cheese, you should give each one of them a little time to shine on their own before you get into making little amuse bouches. Start with the most mild and then work up to the strongest. It’s like wine. You’re not going to start with a Cab Sauv and then move onto a Riesling. That’s just crazy talk.
GO WILD – If you want to venture into the world of charcuterie, by all means, have at’er. If you’re going to add one meat, add two. Find a nice cured sausage like Don’s Meat Market’s (126 Mill St.) Hungarian Hot and a piece of paté. Remember the contrast of the cheese? Same thing. Do one beef and one duck. Something hard and something soft. And add a nice grainy mustard in that case too. If you want to make this plate more for an after-dinner thing, swap out the pickle for some Hummingbird Chocolate. Oh, and spiced nuts are ALWAYS an acceptable addition.
If you’ve got it down but you need a little help with the rest of the menu, come by North Market and we can put together a nifty selection of appetizers and platters. Don’t throw lame parties. You want to keep your friends. We can help.