From cases of oil and myriad produce to cuts of meat and dry goods, after a chef’s weekly order list is written oftentimes there is little left in a restaurant’s budget for “obscure” cheese.
But keeping a small, rotating larder of artisanal cheese for a composed cheese plate can be just the accompaniment to an exciting beverage list, an alternative to a meat-centric menu, or a great canapé offering for private events. When democratically selected it is possible to keep the selection fresh.
The simplicity lies within making decisions on which type of cheese to select, how much, and when to serve it.
The first component to this model is finding which styles of cheese work for you. Taking a trip to a cheese counter can be inspirational. Here, a cheesemonger can point out labels made in your region, which is a great starting point on a cheese menu. Mongers are also happy to share with you cheese varieties in the peak of the season, which ones are highly desirable, which are sturdy and improve with age, and which they believe to be reliable crowd-pleasers. With this data you can make informed decisions between farmstead Gouda or Grana Padano DOP or if a goats-milk-only menu is what you want, for example. There’s no wrong answer here. A typical combination for a cheese plate would be to offer one hard cheese, one soft cheese and one blue. The milk types can be the same but mixing it up is more exciting for the palate.
After you’ve outlined which cheeses you want to use, to strengthen your list you must believe that less is more. Unless you have the diligence alongside a temperature- and humidity-controlled space to care for multiples, two or three cheeses at a time is perfectly adequate. Drawing from a small set allows you to easily monitor these living foods, observing how they change over time.
As far as portion size, try to relate it to flavors and textures. If you’re planning to serve a fresh chèvre or a light and fluffy robiola, you can offer a more generous portion, as opposed to Parmigiano Reggiano DOP, that can become a powerful cheese; a little bit can go a long way.
Alternately, a ripe Stilton or Fourme d’Ambert can go from sensational to soapy-tasting if left to languish, so it’s best to serve a healthy portion, which can be reduced as your cheese sales increase. The more aged, drier cheeses can be stretched a bit further than their fresh, high-moisture counterparts.
On cutting and serving your cheese, it’s best to think of whole wheels (whether they be round, square, or cylindrical) as if they were whole pies. Meaning, each whole can be divided in half first, and then wedges can be measured out proportionately. It’s also thoughtful to ensure that some rind should be evenly dispersed on each piece for consistency’s sake.
Dressing condiments around your cheese plate is also an exciting part of the menu. And while a sticky, sweet marmalade can taste delicious with most any cheese, don’t underestimate the balance that a peppery, crisp radish and their tops can offer. There is no limit to the creativity of your accompaniments here. And any elaborate platter done up by today’s cheesemonger can prove that.
For more information, the podcast “Cutting the Curd” on the Heritage Radio Network has a fantastic episode on using cheese in the professional kitchen and is an excellent reaffirmation on why it is relevant in today’s restaurant.