How to Build the Ultimate Cheese Board
At any LeRoux Kitchen gathering, you can be sure to find our staff huddled around one place: the cheese board. There's nothing more satisfying or wonderfully indulgent as a well-crafted plate of cheese and accompaniments. We got some pro tips from our food and wine buyer, Cully, who shared her recommendations on how to build the ultimate cheese board.
My concept of a "cheese board" tends to be pretty loose, and usually consists of little more than one or two cheeses and some honey. Board (or plate) optional. I love experiencing cheese on a daily basis, and incorporating it into part of my regular old everyday life. Good cheese is an exceptional thing, and one that doesn't have to be reserved for parties or special occasions. I love eating cheese while cooking dinner, and very often, as my entire dinner. You can dress it up or play it down (just like your favorite little black dress!) but there are some good basic rules of thumb to follow when selecting your cheese and pairings.
To begin, find a board. Or plate, or cutting board, or giant slab of marble. Any hard surface will do, and I especially love a nice piece of slate or these stunning boards from Teak Haus.
Select the Cheese
Next it’s time to pick the cheese. I always recommend heading to your local cheesemonger when purchasing your cheese, as they are likely to have the best and freshest selection. They can also guide you towards your perfect cheese mate. We rely heavily on our friends at The Cheese Shop of Portland when we're buying cheese. Good cheese is not inexpensive, so it's important to be intentional about where and how you're spending your money so you're getting the best quality product.
When selecting the starting lineup, I recommend 3-5 cheeses that are distinct from one another in texture, flavor and age. It's great to mix up milk types as well. An ideal cheese board might contain a fresh bloomy rind cow's milk cheese (like Camembert), a semi-firm goat's milk Gouda, and a pungent mixed-milk blue cheese. You've got creamy and soft, semi-firm and tangy, and rich and funky.
Plate the Board
When arranging your cheese board, place the cheeses in order of how they are meant to be eaten. It's best for your palate to start with the softest and gentlest cheese, and finish off with the strongest flavor. If you've got a blue, it's most likely going on the end. You can slice the cheeses ahead of time (no cubes, please!) or leave a nice set of cheese knives in and around the board.
Choosing the accoutrements to accompany the beautiful cheeses we've selected is one of my favorite tasks. Cheese is a natural friend of so many flavors and textures, and you can really go hog wild with the pairings. Both sweet and savory nibbles and sauces work with cheese, and the options are really endless. I love a spicy honey like Mike's Hot Honey from Brooklyn, which pairs with just about everything (including PIZZA!), and salty nuts, like my favorite peanuts in the world, made by the Methodist Men of North Carolina. Jams, mustards, dried fruit, quince paste, even confit cauliflower can be wonderful accompaniments for cheese. It's all about complimenting and contrasting the flavors and textures of the cheese. Fortunately, the best way to find your favorite pairings is by trial and error.
Now for the fun part! The right wine can be the perfect match for any cheese board and can bring the flavors out even more. At our Portland and Scarborough locations we carry a wide assortment of wines that have been thoughtfully selected keeping quality and price in mind. We've worked hard to grow our wine section into one that highlights smaller producers with a focus on natural or sustainable wines, and to find the best wines at the most reasonable prices. Come in to our Portland shop to talk to us about finding you the right wine for your cheese board (and beyond!).
You can pair a selection of red and white wines with your cheeses, but I also often suggest to customers that cider is a natural pairing for cheese since they're both so complex and earthy. Cider can both compliment and contrast the flavors and aromas of certain cheeses. Slightly sparkling ciders help cut through the rich fat of creamier cheeses, and the acidity can temper the salt and fat and elevate the nuances of a cheese.
Pro tip #1: Pair wines and cheeses with equal intensity.
Just like you wouldn't pair Flaming Hot Nacho Doritos with spicy queso dip, you want to avoid pairing intense wines with super flavorful cheeses. We want both the wine and the cheese to sing, and for their individual characteristics to be highlighted by the pairing, not tempered. I generally avoid red wines with cheese, unless it is an aged cheese, like Parmesean or 18 month Gruyere, which can stand up to a light red with strong tannins, like Sangiovese. If you're eating something light and easy, like a young Manchego, I'll always reach for a mineral-driven white wine with gentle flavors of citrus, like Albarino or Gruner Veltliner.
Pro tip #2: Sparkling wines are incredible with soft, creamy cheeses
Let's be real, sparkling wines are just incredible. Full stop. But they do work some fun magic with soft, fatty cheeses. The bubbles and acidity in the wine will actually cut through some of the heavy fat of, say, a triple creme, and will clear your palate so you can keep working your way around that cheese board. If bubbles are available with cheese, I will always choose them.
Pro tip #3: Have fun with it!
The thing to remember is that there is no right or wrong way to build a cheese board. Look at me: I've literally eaten cheese off an iPhone in Italy, and it totally counted as a cheese board. As long as you focus on a combination of textures and flavors, you cannot go wrong. When it comes to choosing wines to pair, opt for ones you love, but don’t be afraid to try something new. You never know what new styles or flavors you may find you really like by going outside your comfort zone. And when in doubt, go with the bubbles.