How exactly do you pair chocolate, cheese and wine? The experts say, “Ask us first.”
The cheese display case at my local grocer is intimidating. There are over 30 types of cheese behind glass and an additional shelf of seemingly endless varieties stretching down the refrigerated aisle. It can be a daunting task to even know where to start. I usually grab three or four cheeses I know I like and then hightail it to the cashier. It never occurred to me to ask for help. It appears I’m not alone.
Liz Nerud, cheese department manager at Woodbury’s Kowalski’s, wishes more people would come by and chat.
“If they’re looking for permission, I hereby grant that permission. Walk up and say hi,’” Nerud says. “The very best thing is to make friends with your cheese monger or wine merchant. Walk up to the cheese counter say, ‘Hi, I’m putting something special together for a Valentine’s celebration. What do you suggest?’ Then the cheese monger should ask questions like, ‘How big is your party?’ Valentine’s Day, it will be an intimate platter for two. The next question should be ‘What’s your favorite cheese?’ I like to get to know my customer, where they’re coming from, what their favorite flavor profiles are and we just jump off from there.”
Nerud recommends customers share their ideas with her so she can brainstorm with them to help turn their ideas into reality.
“The customer knows more than they think they do,” she says. “They may not have a lot of specific knowledge, but they know what they like and enjoy. The delightful thing, especially for Valentine’s Day, is that it’s a terrific time to take what you like and create a board that will tickle your fancy. It’s a sensuous holiday and the cheese platter provides a sensuous experience. It engages taste, aroma and texture. All of the senses are involved.”
Assembling the Ideal Platter For 2
The first step is to go to a kitchen or home store and find your ideal cutting board or slate. Nerud says that will serve as your blank canvas.
“When you compose your platter, think of it as a formal garden,” she says. “This is not a wild flower meadow where everything is scattered hither and yon. Give each element its own little piece of real estate. You want it focused and you want each thing to have its place to shine.
If you have good colors, shapes, flavors and textures it’s going to be delightful. Incorporate crunch and chew and salt.”
Step 1. Trust your cheese monger. “Even though you might be unfamiliar with the name or style of cheese, that doesn’t mean the flavors won’t be friendly and immediately delicious. Let us introduce you to new cheeses. Even though they’re not familiar, they’re not scary,” Nerud says. “You will discover something new and marvelous you’ve never had before. It’s something you can put on a plate and you’ll have a new treasure.”
Step 2. Choose three cheeses. “Odd numbers always work best. To anchor the cheese platter you have three cheeses and they should have variation between them in terms of texture and perhaps milk type family of cheese,” Nerud says.
Cheese suggestions, top to bottom: Vincent Gouda, Holland (“Where gouda meets parm;” caramel; nutty); MontAmore Cheddar, Plymouth, WI
(perfectly sharp; slightly crumbly); Grand Noir Cambozola Blue Cheese, Germany (silky; smooth; not too pungent); Fromager D’Affinois Double Cream, France
Step 3. Shape and texture. “When you’re putting [the platter] together, the shape of the cheese is nice to keep it distinct. An aged gouda you could make into little nuggets with your knife. It’s not a smooth slice, you can make nuggets and see and taste the texture” she says. “Other cheese you can leave whole. You can put a nice triangle of brie on the platter. Other shapes of cheese are into logs, fat matchsticks or into traditional squares or triangles just to create visual interest on the tray.”
Chocolate suggestions, left to right: Theo Organic fair trade 70% cacao dark chocolate orange; Terroir Chocolate 60% dark chocolate with lavender; Chocolove Chilies & Cherries in 55% dark chocolate
Step 4. Chocolate in all its forms. “Chocolate is very much a part of the cheese counter. There’s a range of textures and flavors,” Nerud says. “Follow your taste buds. Do you like rich, dark chocolate or do you like smooth and sweet chocolates?” If your platter has brie, smooth cheeses or triple crème, Nerud recommends milk chocolate or chocolate-dipped strawberries. Blue cheese or fudgy cheeses go well with medium dark chocolates. Nerud also recommends exploring other forms of chocolate. “Chocolate cookies or wafers are wonderful things to use if you want to incorporate chocolate. It doesn’t have to be just a chocolate bar.”
Step 5. Don’t forget fruit and nuts. “I would love chocolate dipped strawberries with brie because you get the fruitiness that goes with the buttery cheese,” Nerud says. She also recommends dried apricots and cherries. “Caramelized pecans are magnificent. They go with absolutely everything. They’re a textural point of difference because of the crunch. The sweet and the salt altogether is beautiful with aged goudas, and with a sweet cheddar, or a blue cheese.”
Step 6. A hint of green. “Greenery is a beautiful thing. Garnish with fresh herbs like rosemary for a pop of green. Or thyme, sage are beautiful and sturdy herbs that aren’t going to wilt. You put the herbs in one place. Don’t take the herbs and scatter it.” Another option is flowers. “An orchid or rose petals for a Valentine’s platter. Isn’t that romantic?”
Step 7. Don’t fret. Don’t get too obsessed with the perfect pairing. The idea of a platter is to experience different tastes and textures. “Pairing items for Valentine’s Day is about love, not perfection,” Nerud says. “We buy these little boards and we put these little things together and it’s always going to be lovely because it’s made with love and it’s going to be enjoyed with love.”
Pair with cheese: Ghost Pines Merlot, Ferrari-Carrano Chardonnay
Pair with chocolate: Forager Cabernet Sauvignon, Hanna Sauvignon Blanc
Assembling a Cheeseboard
Amy Goetz of Lunds & Byerlys recommends creating shapes on a cheeseboard such as wavy rivers or a circular pattern.
“For great ideas, go to thatcheeseplate.com,” Goetz says. “She shows exactly how to build a beautiful platter.”
The site’s Cheese by Numbers section shows platters for 2 to 10 people and comes with simple step-by-step instructions on how to make beautiful and elegant designs.
For More Info
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Lunds & Byerlys
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Thanks to Lunds & Byerlys for providing the items for our delicious photo shoot this month.