At some point this holiday season you may find yourself staring into a display case at dozens of cheeses, wondering when it all got so complicated. It's just a cheeseboard, right?
Fear not. You don't need to go cheese shopping with a complete list of what you want (loosen up, people), but going in with nothing can leave you floundering. Having even one cheese in mind gives your cheeseboard a focus. Then complement your first choice with a variety of flavours, textures and styles (mellow/strong, soft/firm, fresh/aged).
Below are some classic crowd-pleasers that can provide the starting point for your master plan. Pick one or two and add a personal favourite or local artisanal product to finish. Serving fewer, larger wedges will prevent your cheeses from drying too quickly. Above all, serve at room temperature.
Brie de Meaux, AOC, raw cow milk, France
Ain't nothing like the real thing. If you've been buying the ubiquitous, generic brie, you'll be enlightened with one bite of this classic. Forget "creamy and bland," think rich, complex and flavourful. With a buttery yellow paste and mushroom aroma, its silky, soft paste melts in the mouth. The curd is still hand-ladled into the cheese moulds.
Pied de Vent, raw cow milk, Magdalen Islands, Quebec
The name of this cheese refers to the sun's rays peeking through the clouds. It has a copper-coloured rind and buttercup yellow paste. Until recently, Pied de Vent was only available in Quebec. This luscious cheese has a supple paste with a full, meaty aroma. The flavours are buttery, robust and nutty. A great after-dinner cheese all by itself.
(Currently at Loblaw's Maple Leaf Gardens, Toronto; and Les Amis de Fromage, Vancouver)
Morbier, AOC, raw cow milk, France
Morbier is a cheese I would park beside me for constant nibbling. The straw yellow paste with its elegant ash line hails from the Franche-Comté region where it was originally created with leftover milk from Comté-making. A little stinky at the rind, this is a more gentle soul on the palate – supple, full, complex. I love the contrast of the slightly granular, chewy rind and supple paste.
Creamy Lancashire, pasteurized cow milk, England
Buttery, tangy and savoury, this is the crowd-pleaser on the cheese board. You can see threadlike lines where the curd has been pressed together. "Creamy" Lancashire is aged up to 12 weeks (any longer and it is known as "tasty" Lancashire). Look for farmstead versions that have more nuanced flavour using curd produced over several days. Leftovers can be used for a quick dinner of Welsh rarebit.
Fontina Valle d'Aosta (DOC), raw cow milk, Italy
Authentic Fontina is made only in the Valle d'Aosta region of the Italian Alps bordering France and Switzerland. This semi-soft cheese has a reddish exterior, an herby and grassy aroma with bold flavours that are sweet, balanced and complex. Similar to Beaufort or Gruyère.
Garrotxa, raw goat milk, Spain
A beauty on the cheese board. Garrotxa's snow-white interior is sheltered by a natural grey-mottled rind. This semi-firm cheese is nutty, floral, bright and delicate with a velvety mouth feel. Best shaved thin with a cheese plane. Have Post-it notes on hand; people will be asking you to spell its name.
Pecorino Moliterno Al Tartufo, raw sheep milk, Italy
Another cheese that could hold centre stage on the table is this truffle-injected wheel from the island of Sardinia. The black truffles are injected into the cheese only after a period of aging has taken place, resulting in a visually striking "veined" appearance. Also makes for some stellar scrambled eggs.
Blue d'Auvergne AOC, raw or pasteurized cow, France
Blue d'Auvergne offers approachable spicy and grassy notes and a nice sweet-salty balance. Its secret weapon is the buttery texture. It's got a fat content of 50 per cent – I dare anyone to stop at one bite.
Sue Riedl blogs about cheese and other edibles at cheeseandtoast.com.