You wouldn’t take your boss to dinner at Proof and order a box of Franzia. So, why are you still serving hunks of Velveeta or digging out the center of your brie as if it’s a softshell crab? “That’s the worst!” says fromage pro Laura Werlin, author of “Cheese Essentials” ($25, Stewart, Tabori & Chang). “If you cube cheese at a party, I question the quality of the cheese or how much the host invests in it.” Anyone who has ever gone nose to nose with a snooty French waiter knows there’s an etiquette for presenting (and tasting!) fromage. But how can you dish up dairy delights at a bash without intimidating your guests or sending them into lactic shock? We checked in with cheese pros (aka the Gods of Gouda) about the do’s and don’ts of everything from bleu to Zamorano (a Spanish sheep queso).
DON’T CROWD THE BOARD
Just like wine, cheese announces itself by smell — and should be sniffed before you chomp into it. But that’s impossible if you place a stinky Gorgonzola beside a mild Havarti. Sue Sonley, co-owner of Cowgirl Creamery (919 F St. NW; 202-393-6880), recommends serving the strongest ones on separate boards. “If you put a really strong, creamy bleu cheese next to a fresh goat cheese, the smells start to run into each other.” Also, three’s a party on a small cheese board. Separate the weak from the strong and use a different knife for each type.
DO EXPERIMENT WITH MILK SOURCES AND STYLES
Cheese can come from any milk-producing animal. That means buffalo, llama and even camel milk can be fermented into deliciousness. But for the most part, you’ll get a nice range of tastes from the traditional holy trinity of the cheese course: cow, goat and sheep. Mix fresh styles (feta, mozzarella) with semi-ripened varieties (Camembert), blues (Gorgonzola) or hard ones (pecorino, Parmesan) for an array of flavors and textures. And consider globe-trotting, too, as in doling out English cheddar alongside pungent blue Spanish Cabrales. But don’t go overboard: Three to five fromages amounts to a sampling; 20 means you have an unseemly crush on the cheesemonger at Whole Foods.
DON’T SERVE COLD CHEESE
Leaving a hunk of Taleggio in your car for hours will spoil your party (and your Prius). But so would plopping Manchego straight from the refrigerator onto the platter. “You’re going to get the best flavor at room temperature. That’s when the cheese will really express texture,” Werlin says. Jill Erber, owner of Cheesetique, the popular queso store/resto in Alexandria (2411 Mount Vernon Ave.; 703-706-5300), agrees; “You should always take cheese out of the refrigerator an hour before serving it to ensure that it’s not too cold for your guests.” Plus, the refrigerator dries and hardens cheese, muting its taste and changing its texture.
DO THE WHITE (WINE) THING
Fruity, sweet or sparkling white wines (Rieslings, Sauvignon Blancs) tend to work best if you’re serving a range of cheeses, since they won’t blast your palate like rich reds do. Some reds do play well with queso, but keep Merlots far from salty or fresh cheeses, since they’ll exaggerate the vino’s dryness. But when it doubt, “Choose a white wine that’s a little sugary. Sweet Rieslings are perfect for most cheeses, or a pinot noir if you insist on red, says Jill Erber of Alexandria’s Cheesetique (2411 Mt. Vernon Ave.; 703-706-5300).
DON’T BE A BLOCKHEAD
Frequent crashers of congressional happy hours or gallery openings know the menu: cheap white wine and 1-inch squares of neon-orange cheddar. But cubing cheese is not only unappetizing (who wants to eat waxy building blocks?); it also changes the taste. “As soon as you cut cheese, the flavors begin to evaporate,” says Cowgirl Creamery’s Sonley. Ideally, that hunk of Manchego or roll of chevre should look like itself, meaning you cut it along lines parallel to its original shape — long slices of Manchego and little rounds of goat cheese.
1) Cow or sheep? Say which using a dry-erase pen on cheese markers. (4 for $10).
2) Put the knife down! Make neater cuts with a cheese slicer ($28).
3) Paint your party delicious with a cheese platter resembling an artist’s palette ($16).
4) Record remembrances of Goudas past in a cheese journal ($25, Cowgirl Creamery).
5) Wrap up hunks in cheese paper ($5, Cowgirl Creamery).
OTHER TASTEFUL SERVING IDEAS
A slate tile ($1, Home Depot) makes a hip cheese board. On ours, clockwise from top right, local Everona (sheep), ashed goat cheese log and Chappelle (cow). Cheeses and knives ($8.75 each), Cowgirl Creamery.
Bye, Triscuits And Cheddar
Cheese and crackers go together like Forest Gump and bad analogies, right? Nope. The cheese should stand alone. “Salty crackers are bad; they overwhelm cheese. Baguette is better,” Werlin says.
Like its pal vino, cheese must breathe. Refrigerate hard ones in cheese paper or a damp cloth, not plastic wrap, which’ll dry them out and impart icky flavors. Soft, fresh cheeses go in Tupperware. “Refrigerators can be dry and hostile,” Werlin says. “Keep cheese on the lowest shelves, where there is more humidity.”
MOO TO THE NEIGHBORHOOD
Not everyone has a cheesemonger for a mother or a token French friend. If you’re still living on pepper Jack or Laughing Cow, these specialty shops will help you navigate the overwhelming world of (usually) pasteurized pleasures. P.S.: Whole Foods cheese counters — particularly the P Street one — also sell a great range of the smelly, salty and sublime.
Cheesetique (above, 2411 Mt. Vernon Ave., Alexandria; 703-706-5300) Enter under a striped awning and take a whiff: You’ll feel like you just stepped off a Paris street. This shop-and-eat mecca serves wines by the glass or bottle, and dozens of imported and domestic cheeses to eat there or take home. Owner Jill Erber’s favorite pairing: a bloomy Chaource (a Brie-like cow’s milk cheese) and Champagne.
Cowgirl Creamery (919 F St. NW; 202-393-6880) Bay Area cheesemakers Sue Conley and Peggy Smith churn out 3,000 pounds of organic queso each week. Their only East Coast outpost sells both their products (mmm, buttery Mt. Tam) and dozens of wedges and hunks from other European and American small-scale producers. “Most Americans don’t know much about cheese,” Conley says. “They’re looking for sharp cheddar or creamy Brie. We expand their repertoire to more subtle flavors.” Her ideal combo: semi-firm Cowgirl Creamery Pierce Point and sauvignon blanc.
La Fromagerie (1222 King St., Alexandria; 703-879-2467) A onetime chef in Europe, Frenchman Sebastien Tavel and his wife, Mary, bring their amour of fromage to this old-timey storefront. For parties, they’ll make up a cheese board ($50) of three types of their range of U.S. and imported varieties. They can even construct a four-tiered cheese “cake” — aka, a wedding-worthy stack that’ll impress even your foodie friends.
Photos by Marge Ely/Express