License to Splurge: Holiday Cheese Plate

The key to a brilliant and memorable holiday cheese plate is a diverse selection of cheeses that are new to most guests, while remaining crowd friendly. There’s nothing celebratory about alienating Aunt Martha; at the same time, everyone’s game for a food celebration so break out of the Brie box (or wheel).

Cheese plate tips:

  • Arrange cheeses from mildest to strongest in flavor (as listed here)
  • If serving on a communal platter, offer separate knives so flavors aren’t mixed
  • A few special-but-versatile serve-withs will prevent pairing excess
  • Real cheese (not processed stuff) is nutritionally packed and deeply satisfying. You don’t need a lot of it. Plan on 1 ounce per person per cheese if serving 3-5 cheeses. Cut that in half if you want to serve more. That means a quarter pound of cheese will be perfect for 4 guests (assuming your selection is limited to 5 cheeses)
  • Splurge on a black slate board and piece of chalk to write the names of the cheeses and a few facts like milk type and country. Or, make your own handwritten signs. You’ll be amazed at the conversations this inspires!
  • Consider serving a cheese plate after dinner but before dessert. While more typical in Europe there’s nothing like a multicourse dinner at home that conveys love and revelry.

The cheeses

  1. Florette: Inspired by Brie, this goat milk version of pillowy butteriness is made by famed French maker Fromagerie Guilloteau. The rind is remarkably thin, sweet and yeasty while the mellow, spreadable inside is a revelation for professed “goat cheese haters.”

  1. La Tur: And you thought Italian cheese has to be hard and salty!? Made from a mixture of cow, goat and sheep milk this cupcake of a cheese is the work of Caseficio dell’Alta Langa. Years ago, my mom called it the “ice cream cheese” with good reason.

  1. Harbison: Imagine serving a single cheese your guests could dig into with spoons. It’s possible with this cow milk round from Vermont’s Jasper Hill Farm. Bound in bark, it’s stunningly beautiful and nearly liquid, the slatherable paste all woodsy cream.

  1. Garrotxa: Goat cheese need not be tangy, white and crumbly. This aged version from the Catalan region of Spain is firm and dense, the flavor soft and herbaceous with the briny finish of a green olive. The velvety grey rind isn’t recommended for eating, but it makes for great presentation.

  1. Pyrenees Brebis: There is no more beloved discovery cheese than the aged sheep wheels of the French Pyrenees. Look for names like Istara, Ossau Iraty or P’tit Basque for a dense, chewy texture and edging-on-caramel flavor.

  1. Pecorino Tartufello: The name pecorino means “little sheep” and refers to a sheep milk cheese from Italy. There are hundreds out there, but this briefly aged round from Siena, made by Caseficio Pinzani is studded with big hunks of black truffle.  Mild tangy cheese plus heady, fungal truffle equals swooning.

  1. Gruyere: Produced in 5 regions of western Switzerland, Gruyere is both a strictly regulated and incredibly traditional cheese. Always made from raw, silage-free cow milk the cheese is carefully aged from five to (ideally) 12-14 months. The resulting flavor is fruity, milky perfection that melts into a silken puddle. My favorite is 1655, but also look for Emmi Kaltbach, Mifroma or Gourmino brands.

8. Aged Gouda (1-2 years): This Dutch cow milk cheese is aged to a hard waxiness that breaks into chunks under knifepoint. With flavors of butterscotch, bourbon and salt it’s often called the “candy of cheese.” Look for big white patches, which are amino acid clusters that add a crunch. Brands to look for: Reypenaer, Beemster XO, Uniekaas, Parrano and U.S.-made Marieke Gouda.

  1. Chiriboga Blue: Possibly the greatest blue cheese ever made, thanks to Arturo Chirboga of Bavarian Germany’s Obere Muehle. Cream-enriched for a mouthfeel like dense cheesecake. The blueing is minimal, the flavors sweet cream with a fruity pop. If you can’t find it look for the deliciously buttery but less complex Cambozola Black Label.

Recommended Pairings

  1. Simple & Crisp Pear or Apple Crisps: Solve the problem of cracker and fruit pairing in one with these delicate and not overly sweet dried fruit crisps. No gluten, just crisp, clean fruitiness, ideal with soft, spreadable cheeses.
  2. Harvest Song Walnut Preserves: Whole fresh (green) walnuts preserved in cane sugar and lemon that develop a heady cinnamon and allspice flavor in the jar. The nuts are firm but juicy, to be sliced alongside firm, nutty cheeses and blues.
  3. Pickled Fruit: Boat Street Pickles’ figs or raisins are among my favorites but many brands are pickling fruit. The benefit is heightened acidity which cuts the fat of cheese, coupled with the natural sweetness of fruit.