Liz Thorpe knows a thing or two about everyone's favorite party food. She's the author of "The Cheese Chronicles" and former vice president of Murray's Cheese. Here she shares her expert knowledge on putting together a cheese platter, pairing wine and cheese, and more.
1. What is it about cheese? Why do we love it so much?
We’ve evolved to find cheese to be the perfect food: fat, protein, and salt packaged in dozens of colors and flavors. Seriously, though, I think it makes such a good party starter because cheese gets people talking. It’s the consummate icebreaker. Guests can compare notes, ask their host what they’re eating, and, inevitably, they start sharing tales of that sandwich they ate as a kid, or that cheese board they first saw in Paris. Cheese is a reference point for many of our most comforting, delicious, and eye-opening food and travel experiences. What makes a better party starter than that?
2. Give us the basics for putting together a crowd-pleasing cheese platter.
Especially when cheese is being served before the main meal, I recommend restraint. Three to five types gives variety without overwhelming people. Conversely, if you’re doing an open house without a sit-down meal, cheese makes an amazing buffet. In that case, seven to 10 hunks of cheese can become the main feature, with breads, crackers, fruits, pickled vegetables, and cured meats for accompaniment. A range of flavor and type is key to avoiding repetition and ensuring that all guests will find something they love. Aim for at least two milk types, ideally three—cow, goat, and sheep are most common—and textures ranging from creamy or spreadable to firm to hard and granular. A blue ensures pop at the end. Don’t get hung up on country of origin, as most countries produce dozens of styles from various milk types. Unless, that is, you want to highlight a country you’ve just visited or a cheesemaking region you’ve heard about.
3. Any suggestions for something a little different to serve with cheese, beyond the expected bread or crackers?
Pickled things—fruits or vegetables. There are sweet, sour, and spicy options from nationally available brands like Rick’s Pick’s, McClure’s Pickles, and Boat Street Pickles. Pickled accoutrements offer acid and sugar or heat to offset cheese’s richness. They cut through the fat and can often be dipped into/spread onto cheese or used instead of a cracker.
4. How do you choose wine to pair with cheese?
Honestly, unless I’m doing a wine and cheese pairing party, where I carefully match up three to five cheeses with three to five wines, I go for broad strokes. I figure most guests will be tasting every cheese and probably drinking one, or at most two, wines. With that in mind:
Bubbly: I always have sparkling wine. It’s festive, it’s celebratory, it feels “fancy” to me. The effervescence cuts cheese’s fat and protein, and the harmonious pairings are broad, from cream-enriched Brie types to dense, nutty mountain cheeses from France and Switzerland. If price is a concern, look for cremant from Alsace or Burgundy, or Spanish cava. I splurge on Champagne for a small group.
Dry Riesling: Riesling need not be sweet, but the dry versions still capture the succulence of stone fruit and the delicacy of flowers. It’s a wine surprise for people who think Riesling equals sugar, and it’s extremely cheese-versatile, especially with the pungent, scoopable cheeses I fancy.
Pinot Noir: The tannins of many reds clash with cheeses—especially those softer styles in which you eat the rind—and Pinot Noir’s light, fresh cherry inclinations can be enjoyed without overpowering half your lactic lineup.
5. Any tips for arranging the cheeses for a beautiful presentation?
Space things out. Don’t cram all your cheeses onto one board. Put one or two at most so folks have room to maneuver and serve themselves while chatting. Consider making stations around the room, or several rooms, to keep people circulating. I like to arrange the platters from mildest to strongest—generally speaking, youngest to oldest or softest to hardest, ending with the blue. Then I tell people to taste through in that order. It’s a way of curating the experience without hanging over everyone’s shoulder.
I love how slate looks, but every time the knife hits the board it reminds me of nails on chalkboard. I use slate for scoopable cheeses and wood boards for anything requiring cutting. Provide a different knife for each cheese so people aren’t smearing blue cheese through the Brie, and so forth. And know that cheese knives are designed based on what’s being cut. Soft cheeses require the thinnest possible blade, or those knives that have holes cut from the blade to reduce surface area. Firm to hard cheeses will need a sturdier blade that can cut through tough rinds. The rock-hard Parmesan types can be served with a spade-shaped knife—I use my oyster knife, actually—and guests can dig out little nuggets of cheese.
Consider buying one single round of cheese that can be scooped. It’s a splurge but so impressive for a group. Look for cheeses like L’Edel de Cleron, Vacherin Mont d’Or, or Jasper Hill Harbison. The rind on all of these is edible.
Oh, and make a sign for each cheese! Include the name, region, country, milk type, and whether it’s raw or pasteurized. This is part of the fun, and part of what gets people talking!