Putting Heaven on a Platter

By Domenica Marchetti
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Remember when putting together a cheese platter was as simple as plunking a brick of cheddar on a plate along with a chalky wedge of brie and -- ooh, fancy! -- a hunk of Port Salut? Simple, yes. But boring.

These days, thanks to Americans' blooming interest, we have access to hundreds of varieties of great artisan cheeses, both imported and domestic: fresh snow-white goat cheeses and oozy, pungent washed-rind cow's milk cheeses; sheep's milk cheeses made by French Benedictine monks in the Pyrenees mountains and by a physician in Virginia's Piedmont region.

"People today are much more receptive to new cheeses, more daring cheeses," says Valentin Dumitrescu, the cheesemonger at Whole Foods Market in Old Town, which carries about 200 varieties.

Pop into any one of the growing number of cheese purveyors in the region, from Cowgirl Creamery in Penn Quarter to Cheesetique in Del Ray to the cheese counters at wine shops such as Arrowine in Arlington and Rick's Wine & Gourmet in Alexandria, and your eyes and nose encounter a feast. Cylinders of cave-aged Swiss, some whole and others cut to show off their smooth, butter-colored interiors, share counter space with great wheels and ragged hunks of Parmigiano-Reggiano. In the display cases, fresh goat cheeses beckon in fanciful bell shapes, paprika-dusted pyramids, pepper-encrusted logs and miniature buttons. There is cheese brined in beer and cheese washed in wine; cheese wrapped in chestnut leaves and cheese smoked over hazelnut shells. Cheeses with names such as Purple Haze, Roaring Forties and Lord of the Hundreds.

All of which makes choosing cheese for a platter a rather daunting prospect. The selection of blue cheeses alone -- how about a sweet, smoky one from Rogue Creamery in Oregon, or perhaps a sliver of a blue Roomkaas Gouda from Holland, or maybe a nugget of Valdeon, a sharp, salty Spanish creation? -- is enough to send the harried party planner into meltdown.

The good news is that by following some simple guidelines, you can easily cut through the confusion and put together a platter that will please cheese freaks and novices alike. Then, by playing around with those guidelines, you can create endless delicious twists on tradition and introduce your guests to some soft, creamy, crumbly, piquant, pungent wonders.

Know your source, and buy wisely. Most cheese experts recommend looking for a cheese shop, farmers market, gourmet market or grocery store with a good selection and a knowledgeable staff. Find a place that will let you sample the cheese and that cuts and wraps it to order. In general, fresh-cut cheese is of higher quality than pre-packaged. That said, many supermarkets now carry a diverse selection of specialty cheeses. Those are often prepackaged, and some are better in quality than others. Be sure to check the label for an expiration date.

Don't buy more than you need. Hard, low-moisture aged cheeses usually have a longer shelf life than fresh or slightly aged cheese, which is highly perishable and which, with some varieties costing upwards of $20 per pound, can also be expensive. Perry Soulos, the cheese manager at Arrowine in Arlington, recommends 2 to 4 ounces of cheese per person if you are serving it as an appetizer before dinner, 2 ounces per person if you are serving it between dinner and dessert, and about 6 ounces per person if you are serving only cheese with a few accompaniments.

Go for variety, not quantity. With so many great cheeses available, it is tempting to think that more is better. But cheese experts generally recommend serving three to six cheeses on a platter so that they can be properly savored. Choose cheeses with a mix of sizes, shapes, textures and flavors to make a platter that is appealing to the palate and the eye.

For example, a simple, all-purpose platter might include a cheese from each type of milk: cow, goat and sheep. Another option is to focus on flavor, selecting cheeses that range from mild to strong.

You can build a platter by texture: Include a fresh goat cheese, a soft-ripened cheese such as brie, a semi-hard cheese such as gouda or Gruyere, and a hard, crumbly cheese such as a dry jack or an aged pecorino. Add a blue cheese to round out the selection.

Sue Conley, co-owner of Cowgirl Creamery, a California dairy that opened a cheese shop in Penn Quarter this year, says she prefers to serve blue cheese on its own, as it has a tendency to overpower everything else on the plate. One way to give blue cheese its due, she says, is to serve an all-blue platter.

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