My cheese consumption ramped up fast and early this year as the holidays approached; I recently spent a week in the Castilla y Leon region of Spain, saying "si" to queso at every meal (and in between). Due to group travel and sampling at cheese producers, the cheeses I tried were always preportioned, but never did I see a haphazard stack of cheese cubes – even the simplest offering played with the geometry of triangle or baton-shaped slices – which not only respected the beauty of the cheeses, but made them all the more mouth-watering.
Returning home, I started to think about my Christmas cheese board a little differently. Having the cheese preportioned makes it easier for nibbling as people move in and out at a party and also easier to share at the table (more bread-basket style, where no one has to slice her own baguette). For a large crowd, I'd suggest a separate plate for each cheese (stick with three cheeses; just buy more of each as needed); for a smaller group, arrange all three on one larger board. And if you want to include cheese as part of dinner, each guest can receive his own composed plate, which is fun and an elegant twist to the more typical cheese course.
With this in mind, I played with a few ideas of cheese and pairings that will hold up well over an evening but also offer guests a varied tasting experience by showcasing three styles of milk (goat, sheep and cow). Assume about 1/2 ounce a cheese, per person.
The pairings suggested can be dabbed (drop of caramel) or placed beside each cheese (nut or pickled veg). If serving membrillo (quince) paste, you can use mini-cookie cutters to create bite-sized portions.
Zacharie Cloutier, Quebec
This award-winning, firm, washed-rind sheep's milk cheese hails from the Eastern Townships and was hard to find until cheese-maker Marie-Chantal Houde started to bring in additional milk to increase production. With a beautiful pale paste, honey-coloured rind and gentle, sweet notes of butter, nuts and caramel, I have long been waiting for this to be a regular at the cheese counter. Truly a special-occasion cheese.
Serve with: Membrillo paste, apple butter or dark honey
Alternatives: Zamorano or young pecorino
Monte Enebro, Spain
In 1983, Queserias del Tietar was conceived as a retirement project by Rafael Baez Bravo-Murillo, who loved the Tietar valley and wanted to settle there. Today the family makes one of the world's most renowned goat cheeses. It's still a small operation where the cheese is handmade and the goat milk is sourced from 10 local farms. The recipe is a traditional one, but it is a delicate cheese that requires a commitment to excellence – from perfecting the oval "mule's leg" shape to the snow-white paste trimmed in a mottled rind. Aged for 20 days and developing a rind from P. roqueforti spores (the same as that used for the blue cheese), Monte Enebro is pleasantly intense in flavour, with a silky texture and savoury, citric notes.
Serve with: Raspberries, pink peppercorns, caramel
Alternatives: Another ripened goat cheese such as Selles-sur-Cher (France), Humboldt Fog (United States) or Le Cendrillon (Canada)
Le Maréchal, Switzerland
If you haven't tried Le Maréchal from the Vaud region of Switzerland, it's time. This raw cow's milk cheese is aged for 120 days and made in 13-pound wheels. Its rind is rubbed in herbs, resulting in a creamy, robust-flavoured cheese with fragrant floral and nutty notes. Any Alpine-style cheese like Maréchal will work well on a cheese board; it only tastes better once at room temperature, so works well over a longer cocktail party.
Serve with: Pickled asparagus, dark chocolate, candied nuts
Alternatives: Comté, Appenzeller
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