Any quality gathering, from book club meetings and home-based wine tastings to holiday celebrations and even cookouts, deserves a spread of cheeses. However, it is the dinner party, be it humble or upscale, that nearly necessitates the presence of a proper cheese plate.
Much like determining the appropriate array of wine for a proper party, choosing cheeses to create the ideal spread can be intimidating. To give us some tips of the trade, we sought out a local expert, Hillary Horn of Clover Top Creamery.
Clover Top Creamery
Hillary’s creamery produces both plain and creatively flavored soft goat cheeses using the milk produced from the goats on their farm. For a cheese plate based solely on those, Hillary has suggestions for both the spread and the accompaniments.
“If I am using our cheeses which are all spreadable I like to include a Plain Chèvre, an Herbed Chèvre, and one of the sweeter choices like Lemon Blueberry Basil or Fig Maple. Then I will include different crackers and bread to have some different textures to play with – I love sliced baguettes from Marie Bette or ciabatta from Wegmans,” Horn shares.
In addition, she recommends adding some spiced pecans and fruit like apples or grapes, or savory sides like sugar snap peas or cucumber slices. She also suggests spicy or tart jams like a sweet peach chutney, Turner Food’s Pepper Jelly or flavors from Jam According To Daniel.
Composing the Cheese Board
When not composing a cheese board of Clover Top’s cheeses, Horn turns primarily to other local artisans with her own technique of cheese comparison.
“If I am not just using our cheeses I will look for contrasts in taste and texture. For example, I might select our Herbed Chevre, Twenty Pace’s pudgy and delicious sheep and goats milk, Noah’s Arcade, the lovely Alpine style Mountaineer from Meadowcreek Dairy, and a gouda from Our Lady of the Angels in Crozet. A blue would round out the selection. I happen to love Point Reyes Original Blue but Twenty Paces also has a lovely blue called Commander Chicory.”
After Horn’s break down of cheese types, she tackled other territories in regards to cheese that remains, for some, a mystery. Just what do you do with that rind?
“Please eat the rind. It is a living thing that your cheesemaker has carefully developed over time,” Horn states enthusiastically.
With an eye toward not aesthetically shortchanging the cheese, Horn has suggestions for display as well. Using tags on toothpicks or chalk on slate boards to identify cheeses is ideal. While she says that any type of platter or plate will do, as long as there’s enough room on the platter for people to maneuver, unique presentations are always palatable.
“My cheese board of choice right now is a large plank of live-edged walnut that spans the entire table,” Horn says. “But if you have a lovely piece of family silver that never gets used this might be a good time to polish it up. I love an ironstone platter or an old bread kneading bowl.”
If we’re going to be honest, we’ll all admit that cheese isn’t sitting solo – there’s almost always a beverage to be its companion. For that, Horn has recommendations with local leanings too.
“Any type of wine that you enjoy is appropriate with cheese. Reds hold up well to strongly flavored cheeses and we have a lot of Viognier in this area – the crisp fruitiness in this white complements the richness of the cheese. A particular favorite of mine is the Petit Manseng from Wisdom Oak Winery paired with our Lemon Blueberry Basil- just delicious! Beer and cider are natural accompaniments to cheese also. I love Satan’s Pony from South Street with the Noah’s Arcade from Twenty Paces or our Toasted Onion Chevre.”
While all of Horn’s advice is on point, the most important point she makes about cheese is one that has been embraced in the wine community as well.
“Serve what you like and don’t be afraid to try something new,” she says emphatically.
If we cut to the bottom line, the basic message about creating a welcoming dinner party is this: there’s never a cheese that’s wrong – it’s only wrong to not have cheese.
Looking for wines to pair with your cheese? Check out the definitive guide to Virginia Wine.