I’m a serial cheese eater. Pair a great cheese plate with wine then add great company, and a cosy living room and you have a very happy Carol right there. This is the really Danish bit of my personality, I guess. (Hygge!)
So it was quite amusing how, when my husband and I decided to host one of our first dinners with friends from the diplomatic corps at home, I found myself struggling when it comes to putting together a cheese plate.
The struggles of a diplomat’s wife are quite mundane to some, I know. Failing at this won’t start a world war nor turn into a major diplomatic incident. However, to fail at something so minor may kill the perfectionist in me inside.
In fact, I was having a minor panic attack that day. Surely, I would have retained some knowledge from all the diplomatic events I attended as a journalist and later on as a wife? I knew the most popular cheeses. How they taste and their textures. But choosing was a different story and I have a tendency to overthink then just want everything in there.
That would have been a mistake – obviously. So I did what any millennial would do. I Googled and ended up with something so basic, that it ended up being fine but not as interesting as I hoped it would be. After all, cheese is always a good conversation piece!
So when the European Union (EU) Delegation in Malaysia sent me a media invite to learn the basics from a cheese master, I just had to attend and learn a thing or two to up my diplowife game. Who else to trust when it comes to learning about cheese but the area of the world that provides the best of its kind, right?
Master Fromager Affineur Pierre Gay who hails from Savoie, France covered a lot of topics – from the basics of cheese down to cooking with them. Even adjusting western cheese recipes to fit Asian tastes. But those, I will write about later.
This post, as promised, won’t be about recipes. Rather, this will be your perfect cheese platter cheat sheet – straight from a French cheese master with 20 years of experience.
First Things First
Bring your cheese out of the fridge an hour before serving (half an hour if you live in the tropics and there is no air conditioning in the room) to let the cheese breathe. You also need it to cool down a little and eat it just in slightly lower temperature. Too cold cuts the flavour and too warm affects texture.
If the cheese plate is just a meal course, prepare at least four ounces per person. If it’s the main event of your party, around three pounds for a party of eight should work.
As for the wine, a sweet white such as a Sauvignon Blanc usually goes well with most cheeses. Another tip that Pierre gave is to pair cheeses with wine from the same region. The reason behind this? The grapes for the wine and the grass (eaten by the cows that later on provide the milk for the cheese), grow on the same soil and would generally affect the taste.
This, he says, is why a Camembert de Normandie also tastes amazing when paired with cider since there are lots of apple trees in the area where the cheese is made. This is also why the Camembert de Normandie will taste like – pardon my French – sh*t when you have it with a Bordeaux.
Basic: Three-Cheese Platter
At the very least, your cheese plate should have three types of cheese. Being French, Pierre recommends not serving dried fruits or jam that alter the cheese’s flavour and texture.
Rather, he advocates enjoying the cheeses in their purest form along with wine or maybe some bread and crackers. His basic plate includes:
- A hard cheese such as aged Comté, Beaufort, and Gruyere
- A creamy cheese like the Camembert de Normandie
- And goat cheese such as the Picodon to add a little bit of acidity to the plate
Should you like some bread with the cheese, one that has a little acidity and grain would work well – especially if you pop it in the oven for a bit before serving.
Normal: Five-Cheese Platter
Pierre says 5 is the ‘okay’ number for a cheese course and he recommends adding the following to your basic plate:
- Blue cheese like Bleu de Gex or Fourme d’Ambert that are both from France
- Gouda from The Netherlands
Not everyone appreciates a good blue due to its strong scent and flavour but if you’re having five different kinds, it’s great to have it in the mix.
The person who doesn’t like blue cheese will still have four other kinds to choose from while those who do, can enjoy it as well.
Pierre says that the addition of the Gouda, another hard cheese, is due to its medium strength, caramel taste. Variety is key!
Feast: Seven-Cheese Platter
Lastly, we go for platter that’s a bit more formal. Not as extravagant as the French’s Christmas cheese platter that contains 11 types but is something that can still be regarded as a feast.
“Why seven? It’s a good number. It also represents each day of the week.” Pierre said.
For this plate, we’ll be topping up the 5-cheese plate with:
- Another creamy, fatty cheese such as the Brillat Savarin that contains 72% fat and will go great with crackers
- A type of cheese that comes with a bit of preparation
Putting a little more effort towards your cheese platter shows thoughtfulness and adds a little something special to it. Pierre prefers some fresh Feta that comes with a dip made out of olive oil, black olives (sliced), and topped with some herbs.
For optimum taste, here is the order in which you should eat the 7 types Pierre provided: The Picodon or Feta should go first, followed by the Brillat Savarin, then the Gouda, Bleu de Gex, Camembert de Normandie, and lastly, the aged Comté.
There you have it. Your cheese cheat sheet! Thanks to Cheese Master Pierre Gay for the wonderful interview and sharing his secrets!
*A version of this article will also appear on The-Binge.com