Cheese, Please

by Matt on August 14, 2006

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The perils of growing older usually involve strange aches and pains, a lack of interest in staying out all night and the desire to just slow things down a bit. However, the pleasures of getting old involve securing a full night’s rest, a certain level of wisdom (yea, right!) and parties that don’t involve keggers, jello shots and hip Hollywood clubs at 4am.

One of my best friends has just turned thirty-something and decided on a rather mature and refined birthday gathering: the Sunday brunch party.

Oh, how I love Sunday brunch. No, I mean, really, I love it. Like I get all excited over it. The glory of a Sunday brunch allows you to sleep in, relax, meet with friends, eat and drink and still be home in time for a nap and dinner. What’s not to love about that? And besides, my biggest gripe with the eating habits of us Americans is that we never really get together long enough to enjoy a long, slow meal. Brunch is the only meal that implies relaxation, and that suits me just fine. It also means there will be champagne involved. God bless the brunch.

The birthday brunch would be a collaborative effort. Knowing my enthusiastic love of cheese, the birthday girl asked if I wouldn’t mind bringing a cheese tray to brunch since she knows my world tends to revolve around cheese. Of course I’d do anything for her, so I gladly accepted. Besides, she’s a lover of all things delicious and she introduced me to her mom’s Cookie Salad, but more on that some other time.

Cheese seems to mystify and confuse people. I hear from friends and family that there are just too many cheeses out there to know which ones to pick. And this leads to a lack of exploration of cheeses. People stick to the yellow stuff and never venture beyond it. You see this tear? I’m crying. It honestly makes me sad.

But don’t be intimidated. It’s easy to explore the world of cheeses.

For most occasions, a selection of 3 to 5 cheeses is sufficient enough to please most guests. Cheese pairing is quite simple–you choose the cheeses you like the most. A great way to select cheeses is to choose contrasting tastes and textures; balance the sweet with the pungent, the firm with the creamy. You may also select cheese from different milk categories, starting with a goat’s milk cheese then moving on to cow’s or sheep’s milk. When it comes time to taste, remember to start with the lightest or mildest cheese first before moving onto your stronger, more robust cheeses.

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If you can’t decide whether to serve bread or crackers along with your cheeses, remember that both are fine and it’s simply a matter of taste. In fact, the differences in texture will enhance the diversity of your cheeses.

And don’t forget fresh fruit, which compliments cheeses well. A selection of ripe fresh fruit such as apples pears, grapes and figs pair beautifully with all sorts of cheeses.

And although it might sound kind of geeky, small tags or a listing of cheeses being tasted always helps out.  I find that people are willing to try new cheeses if they know what they are eating.  A list could include the country of origin, the type of milk, whether it’s a young cheese or if it’s been aged a few years.

I’m happy to report that the brunch was a smashing success– I’m sure the bloody mary bar had something to do with it! The cheese tray was a hit as well, and I take great satisfaction in being able to introduce old friends and new acquaintances to some of my favorite foods on earth.

Here’s a toast to cheese, to my friend Dana, and to getting old. Well, two out of three ain’t bad.

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Some cheese bits…

Preparation: Unwrap your cheeses and arrange on the serving platter of your choice at least one hour before guests arrive. This gives your cheeses time to reach room temperature and show their true taste. Some cheeses, like those made from goat’s milk, may require a little extra time.

Timing:  For super soft cheeses such as brie, allow plenty of time to make it runny, but never microwave it. Runny is good! And remember, as freaky as they look, most rinds are actually edible.

Order: Start with the mildest cheeses before moving on to those that pack a flavorful punch. Cheeses such as stiltons and roqueforts overpower many of their delicate, younger counterparts.

Ask! Never be afraid to ask your cheesemonger or sales clerk for a recommendation. I’ve found that people are passionate about cheese and always willing to offer suggestions and tips.

Coming up soon: A few of my favorite cheeses and why I’ll never grow weary of them.