Food Matters: Pro tips for assembling a holiday cheese platter
December 13, 2018
Edgar “Eddie” Wettstein is an artist in his element. It's a Thursday morning at Murray's Cheese counter within City Market in Aspen, and Wettstein has just hand-delivered a couple of cheese platters to customer Danielle Kimbro for an office holiday party. We marvel at the boards, each a mosaic of cream, pale yellow, and deep gold European and American cheeses dotted with colorful dried fruit, olives and nuts. Wettstein, an affable Swiss native who has the enviable title of "Murray's Cheese Master," beams.
Later, Wettstein tells me that this 6-year-old, postage-stamp-sized outpost of the famed Murray's Cheese in New York City's Greenwich Village—an institution since 1940—here in Aspen ranks consistently among the company's top five U.S. retailers (out of more than 350 Kroger locations in 30 states) during this time of year. Aspenites, he says, adore cheese.
Wendy Mitchell of Meat & Cheese Restaurant and Farm Shop might say the same. Holidays are big business for her cheese counter, which showcases a carefully curated selection of American and imported cheeses and cured meats. While both purveyors sell custom cheese platters, aspiring DIYers might want to create their own, with a bit of guidance, of course.
"We are always happy to help people build their own boards at home—we're cheese nerds and we think it's really fun," says Mitchell, for years an award-winning cheesemaker as founder of Avalanche Cheese Co. in Basalt (which she closed in 2017). "Even if we're not building it for you, we can help you learn to make your board at home look professional."
A few more pro tips from the front lines:
HOW TO BEGIN?
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Depending on how many people will be picking at the platter, plan to choose three to five cheeses—an odd number is most visually pleasing, according to science.
A fresh, soft cheese will open the palate by awakening taste buds. "At restaurants you'll often see a fresh goat cheese as the starter because goat's milk is light and bright—perfect with a glass of bubbly," says France native Manon Servouse, marketing brand manager of Laura Chenel's/Marin French Cheese Co., based in Sonoma, Calif. When leading tastings, she suggests Laura Chenel's Original Log (available at Clark's Market and Roxy's Market), which is mild alone but "may be rolled in fresh herbs, such as thyme or rosemary, to pick up herbaceous notes in the cheese."
NEXT, THINK TEXTURE
Choose a soft-ripened wheel: Brie or Camembert makes a stunning centerpiece on any cheese board. Wettstein digs petite wheels from MouCo Creamery in Fort Collins or new washed-rind Comeback Cow or Brie-style Keep Dreaming from Dorothy's Creamery in Illinois.
Then consider firmer, bolder cheeses, such as cheddar, gouda, or aged sheep's milk cheese, which typically have been aged longer and therefore boast a lower water content alongside complex flavors.
A variety of milks—cow's, sheep's, goat's or combinations—offer a spectrum of flavor, as do diverse locations. Colorado boasts a number of incredible producers, and any shop in Aspen has a selection. Maybe include a dairy-free cheese as a wild-card curiosity—especially for those who follow a special diet. Good plant-based options exist (really), often found in another section of the store.
Conservative estimates allow 1 to 2 ounces of each cheese per person. Wettstein, perhaps understanding local appetites, generally offers four ounces per person. Will you serve other appetizers or is this the main snack on offer? Your friendly cheesemonger will help determine proper portioning.
SELECT SUPPORTING STARS
Accompaniments add color, texture and flavor to a cheese board. Wettstein suggests prosciutto, dried fruit, olives and either honey or jam.
"I'm happy to sell you anything, but you don't want to overdo it," he says.
Servouse considers season: for winter, she'll craft an antipasti platter with cured meats, artichoke hearts, mixed nuts and flatbreads, garnished with rosemary sprigs. Fresh goat cheeses and Camembert enjoy an assortment of dried fruit (apricots, dates, figs, dried cranberries), grapes, dark jam or fruit paste, and a dish of candied nuts or pistachios. Don't forget the bread—and sturdy crackers!
"When making boards we usually lay down the meat first and then fill in the negative space with cheese," Mitchell says. "A good trick is to fold any of the larger meats in half or quarters and then shingle them."
Servouse will drape handful of grapes around a cluster of multiple 4-ounce Marin French Petite Camembert—one for every two people at the party.
CUT THE CHEESE?
Servouse recommends presenting cheeses whole so that people can see what they look like in the wild. Mitchell creates varying levels of height by leaving soft cheeses whole and cutting others. (Cut cheese may also be less intimidating for grazing guests.) Wettstein suggests cutting only a portion of each cheese, making leftovers easy to wrap up.
MIND THE RIND
"When you cut into a cheese with a rind, slice it into pie wedges (or triangles) so that everyone gets a little bit of the edge," Servouse says. "Cheeses ripen from the outside in, so the area closest to the rind usually has the most flavor." And yes, it's OK to eat the rind of bloomy-rind cheeses (Camembert and Brie).
LET IT RELAX
Unwrap cheese about an hour before serving to bring out flavors and aromatics. Forget? Twenty to 30 minutes is still better than fresh from the fridge.
ID THE CHEESE, PLEASE
Writing from personal experience here: folks like to know what they're eating. And it doesn't hurt to indicate which type of milk makes the cheese—ideal for those with sensitivities (again: nut milk cheese).
Scope Instagram, Mitchell says: "I'm very visual and that really helps me to come up with new ways to display meat and cheese."
PAY FOR THE GOOD STUFF
"Ninety percent of our cheese platters are custom-made, whether $40 or $250," Wettstein says. "It's expensive, but you don't know how much work goes into it: four and a half gallons of milk to make 1 pound of cheese!"
If you choose just one—because minimalism is the current trend in the cheese world lately—Wettstein and colleague Lucy Brado suggest this super-luxe wheel: Cognac BellaVitano. Aged at least 18 months, then steeped in Rémy Martin Cognac for seven to 10 days, it's sweet, buttery, nutty and oaky with toasty notes of vanilla and caramel. Available only for these holiday weeks in Aspen at the posh price of $50 per pound, it sells out fast every year.
Amanda Rae was the main copyeditor for culture: the word on cheese from 2008 to 2017. And still she's not sick of cheese! firstname.lastname@example.org
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