At holiday gatherings, a cheese board is the natural place to linger and start up a conversation. After all, few things break the ice like a guest in cocktail-party attire licking ripe, messy Brie de Meaux off her fingers.
Cheeseboard 101 simmers down to a few simple objectives.
The first goal is diversity: Offer a variety of flavours, textures and styles - try plating a ripe bloomy rind with a nutty mountain cheese and a creamy blue.
Second, keep it simple: Crackers and bread should be fresh but plain; the spotlight should be on the cheese.
And also play with contrast: Use a few accompaniments such as honey, dried fruit, toasted nuts and some pickled veggies to provide different flavours and textures.
Once you've mastered the basics, it's time to take things up a notch and create a "theme" board.
In the spirit of the holidays, focus on similarities rather than differences. If you've ever had the opportunity to taste a flight of wines of a comparable style you know it can be an eye-opening experience to compare their characteristics side by side. The same goes for cheese.
Maybe you think you like Stilton better than Roquefort, but have you ever tasted them side by side? Try offering both cheeses in a flight of blues as a dessert board paired with port or another fortified wine. Throw in the infamous East Coast blue, Dragon's Breath, to see how ferocious it really is compared to these icons of the cheese world. Some thinly sliced sweet onion makes a tasty, crunchy side.
From blue to bloomy, nothing says "indulge" more invitingly than soft-ripened cheeses. Feature a silky French Camembert next to Quebec's famous triple-cream Riopelle and Ontario's Jersey milk Comfort Cream. (Make sure you consult with your cheese monger to purchase these cheeses at their peak, or à point, as they say in France.) Cleanse palates between bites of fatty goodness with a glass of sparkling wine.
And if you're really going to go for it? With an adventurous crowd (and perhaps a glass of gewürztraminer in hand) you could pull out all the smelly stops and do a soft, washed-rind comparison - goat's milk Romelia from British Columbia, Époisse from France and maybe even throw in some Muenster. If you're going for drama, you won't be lacking for reaction, or breadth of flavour.
These theme boards might not be the "something for everyone" way to host a party, but they're a surefire way to show you care - about cheese, at least.
Sue Riedl studied at the Cordon Bleu in London.