As part of our cheese primer series, we've asked Elizabeth Chubbuck, SVP of sales and marketing at Murray's Cheese, to give us the lowdown on different cheese types. By developing a basic understanding of the main categories of cheese, you'll not only feel more comfortable in a cheese store or at a dinner party, but you'll also be able to create a bold yet balanced cheese display for people to enjoy at home. Today we're talking to Chubbuck about essential cheese tools. More specifically, we asked the question you've probably been wondering for years: Do you really need a fancy cheese board and special knives for every kind of cheese you might encounter?
"We like to be really inclusive and approachable when it comes to cheese." says Chubbuck of the Murray's approach. "If all you have is a cutting board and your table knives, you can still have a fantastic cheese party." If the cutting board or plate isn't visually appealing, then Chubbuck suggests dressing it up with things like olives, pickles, raspberries, or fresh sage leaves—anything to add a pop of color. Another option is to lay down a piece of parchment paper on an angle so it looks very intentional; as a bonus, at the end of the night there's less clean up since you just toss the parchment paper. That being said, if you're into cheese and entertaining, it's nice to have at least a few key pieces. Here are some of Chubbuck's favorites.
Though you can certainly use your everyday cutting board, it can be nice to serve your cheese on something a little more special. Chubbuck says slate boards are good because the contrast of the pale cheese against the dark slate is quite striking, plus they have great texture and you can even write on them in chalk. In her own home, however, Chubbuck relies on wooden cutting boards. "I just love the rich tone of the wood. Cheeses are historically aged on wooden boards and so there's something very—it's in the same narrative to have a beautiful wooden board," she says. If you opt for a wooden board, it's important to take care of it especially since cheeses and olives have fat and acid, which can seep into the surface. Keep them clean and lightly oiled.
Whichever kind of board you go for, Chubbuck advises not using it as your work station so it doesn't become scratched and worn so quickly. For that reason, she cuts and portions cheese on her regular cutting board then transfers everything to the cheese board, so it's almost more for display. Of course, she acknowledges that eventually any cheese board will begin to wear with use—and when that happens, "lean into it," she says.
Since cheese pairs beautifully with so many things, Chubbuck recommends getting some small dishes for accouterments like jam, honey, and olives. These don't have to be fancy or even matching—have fun with them. She likes to go to the Bowery (New York City's restaurant supply epicenter) to get cheap soy sauce dishes and other playful vessels.
When it comes to selecting cheese knives, you can get as specific as you like since each knife serves its own purpose and there's a kind of knife for every type of cheese. Chubbuck says that a good, basic set of cheese knives is plenty for your average home entertainer. However, if you want to expand your collection, you may want to consider. First and foremost, if you're going to invest in one special cheese knife, Chubbuck recommends a brie knife, which is thin so there is little surface area for the cheese to stick to. She likes using this knife to cut the cheeses before the party and appreciates that it's simple to use.
She also suggests purchasing a knife with a sharp tip on it, like a Parm knife, which is useful to have on hand so guests can easily "chunk off" and spear pieces of hard cheese like Parmesan. It's also nice to have a knife with a sturdy handle that won't break or bend when you go to slice hard and semi-hard cheeses. This kind of knife can do double duty for semi-soft and blue cheeses as well, and can even do a decent job at spreading softer cheeses. Of course, if you want a dedicated knife for softer cheeses, then a spreader is the way to go. These have a rounder tip that isn't super sharp and can be used with soft cheeses like young chevre. Spreaders can also be used with jam and the like.
For the real cheese aficionado, Chubbuck recommends a cheese harp, which she describes as "an inverted Y shape metal frame with a slim, dental floss-style wire strung across the gap of the Y." These are ideal for pre-portioning semi-soft cheeses (they do a much better job of creating clean slices than any knife). Chubbuck suggests taking a small wheel of something like camembert and press the wire towards your hand to cut the wheel in half. Depending on the size you can keep going to cut it into eighths or even sixteenths.