Local cheesemongers share suggestions for building a better cheese plate

  • Hard cheeses are perfect for cutting, says Alena Gianna Douglas, head cheesemonger at Provisions specialty food and wine store in Northampton. “You can make gorgeous triangles and little squares and lay them on in a Jenga type thing.” Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

  • There’s a place for every cheese — except Kraft singles, says Alena Gianna Douglas, who trains new cheesemongers and puts together made-to-order cheese platters at Provisions specialty food and wine store in Northampton. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

  • “There’s really nothing to be intimidated about making a good cheese platter,” says River Valley Co-op’s Rob Schark, who trained as a cheesemonger at the University of Wisconsin. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

  • Rob Schark, cheesemonger at River Valley Co-op in Northampton, recommends selecting cheeses from soft to hard in texture and from mild to intense in flavor. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

  • Alena Gianna Douglas, who became a cheesemonger shortly after graduating from college, is in charge of ordering cheeses at Provisions in Northampton. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

  • Palate cleansers, like olives or bread, can be used to separate different cheeses. Here, Alena Gianna Douglas, head cheesemonger at Povisions specialty food and wine store in Northampton, places a few olives between French comté cheese. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

  • Instead of simply putting the cheese onto a board or platter, Alena Gianna Douglas uses cheeses as building blocks for artistic designs. She puts down larger chunks of cheese first, and then fills in the gaps with other foods like bread, nuts or preserves. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

  • Alena Gianna Douglas suggested cutting up harder cheeses into bite-sized pieces and letting guests cut softer cheeses themselves. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

  • To create variety, Alena Gianna Douglas suggests selecting cheeses of varying flavor, texture and firmness. For example, when creating a three-cheese platter, she says to pick a soft and mild cheese, a semi-firm and medium cheese, and a hard and sharp cheese. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

  • Alena Gianna Douglas, head cheesemonger at Provisions specialty food and wine store in Northampton, preps a cheese platter. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

  • For those who might not know much about cheese, Alena Gianna Douglas recommends they try Manchego 1605, a hard cheese with earthy flavors, as an introduction to the world of artisanal cheese. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

  • Rob Schark, cheesemonger at River Valley Co-op, says you can’t go wrong with Grafton Village Aged Cheddar from Vermont, “because it’s local and it tastes great. ... it’s nice and sharp.” Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

Staff Writer
Published: 2/26/2019 1:53:54 PM

Alena Gianna Douglas, head cheesemonger at Provisions specialty food and wine store in Northampton, knows that the world of cheese can be intimidating.

But it doesn’t have to be, Douglas explained.

There’s a place for every cheese — except Kraft singles, she said with a smile.

After earning a degree in Italian from Mount Holyoke College three years ago, Douglas said she got a job at Provisions the week after her graduation ceremony without knowing what she was getting herself into. Soon, she discovered the nuanced flavors of artisan-made craft cheeses.

“I fell in love with cheese, because it’s the richest world,” Douglas said.

These days, she’s in charge of keeping the Crafts Avenue store’s cheese stock fresh, training new cheesemongers, and putting together made-to-order cheese platters, she explained while slicing blocks of French comté into small wedges.

And while Douglas — who made it to the top ten in The Cheesemonger Invitational’s annual competition in New York City — treats the endeavor as an art form, there are a few basic principles that can help anyone put together a great cheese platter.

Choosing the cheeses

The first question that anyone should ask before buying cheeses is how many people they’re expecting, said Rob Schark, cheesemonger at River Valley Co-op in Northampton. Schark has worked with cheeses for 20 years and received formal cheesemonger training from the University of Wisconsin. For two to three people, he recommends at least three cheeses. For four to six, four to five cheeses.

For seven to 10 people, Schark suggests buying six kinds of cheese.

As a loose rule of thumb to make sure there’s enough variety, Douglas suggests selecting cheeses from soft to hard in texture, and from mild to more intense in flavor.

If he were to make a three-cheese plate, Schark said he’d choose Fromager d’Affinois, a soft French double-cream cheese, plus a semi-softManchego goat cheese from Spain and a Grafton Village Aged Cheddar from Vermont as a third option “because it’s local and it tastes great. ... It’s nice and sharp.”

Meanwhile, Douglas said she’d start with the Vermont-based Jasper Hill Creamery’s Moses Sleeper brie-style cheese, which is soft and mild in flavor with a gooey core. Then she’d add a harder and richer Alpine style cheese, which she enjoys cutting in creative ways.

“You can have such a fun time with shapes because it’s easily malleable, so you can make gorgeous triangles and little squares, and lay them on in a Jenga type thing,” Douglas said.

For a third cheese, “I might end with a fudgy introductory blue. Something that’s not incredibly briny,” she said. “There’s a beautiful world of blue (cheese) — ones that are buttery, buttery, buttery, and yeasty and lemony — very easy, and then ones that are very briny and assertive. ... You don’t need it to be the most intense finish.”

Adding complementary flavors

Selecting other foods like nuts or fruit preserves to serve alongside the cheese is the next step.

For example, Douglas said Manchego goes well with quince paste, which is a sweet and thick jelly made of the pulp of the quince fruit.

Blue cheeses often pair well with honey, chocolate, sweet nuts or dark fruit preserves. Douglas recommends serving an acidic cheddar with a rich fennel salami.

Douglas said she still remembers the first time she discovered a great pairing — the Moses Sleeper brie-style cheese with a summer peach and ginger jam from Blake Hill Preserves in Vermont.

“A really good pairing is when things change, and there’s this third flavor that’s brought forward. That’s a plus-one pairing,” she said. “We carry it always because it’s one of the most slam dunk pairings. It’s gorgeous.”

Laying it all out

When placing the cheeses onto a platter, Douglas advises starting with the largest wedges.

Put cheeses that are intentionally paired with other food items like honey or fruit preserves close together, and then add palate cleansers like different types of bread, olives or pickled vegetables.

To change things up, Douglas suggests including smoked or cured fish, mussels or “a really good potato chip” in-between the cheeses.

For hard and semi-soft cheeses, Douglas said cutting them beforehand is a good idea so that guests don’t have to wrestle with a knife. She leaves soft, spreadable varieties intact.

She also seeks out colorful accoutrements.

“If I have Turkish apricot, for instance, I would put that next to a bright white goat cheese. You want to make the colors pop,” Douglas said.

Schark said he sometimes places the cheeses on top of a bed of kale or adds a few sprigs of fresh rosemary. Fresh or dried fruit such as clementines or strawberries are always welcome.

“So much of the visual aspect is beautiful colors and shapes,” he said.

Washing it down

“A fine pairing is when the drink doesn’t drown out the cheese or vice versa, and it’s a nice marriage,” said Douglas, citing how well matched a creamy goat cheese can be with light-bodied floral white wines.

Pairing cheese with beer is another interesting way to bring out unique flavors. Douglas said she especially enjoys pairing beer because “there’s more (textural) variety in the body” between, say, a thick porter and a pale ale.

Most of all, Schark said the goal of pairing cheeses should be to have fun, experiment and try things that are delicious.

“There’s really nothing to be intimidated about making a good cheese platter,” he said. “There’s not a right way or a wrong way.”


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