What’s on the Plate
Soul mates for fine wines
By Angela Sanchez
Photograph by John Koob Gessner
Cheese and wine are natural partners, and wherever there’s good wine, good cheese is sure to follow. It’s a partnership of land, stewardship and artisan craft that’s been around for hundreds of years. If you walk into a small family-owned winery in Spain or Italy you are likely walking into their home. The winery is on the attached property and the vineyards are either there or nearby. No matter the time of day, you’ll be served cheese from their own making or from a nearby farm, simply cut and served with a locally made charcuterie, fruit or olives — perfectly paired and thoughtfully prepared.
We always have a cheese board for family and friends, either before dinner or as a simple meal, and wine is there to complement. For me, a cheese board starts as an idea. The parts and the presentation should be equally fabulous, making it as appealing to the eye as to the palate. Start simply and build from a good foundation. Just like choosing a great wine to enjoy and share, you need to know your company. Are they adventurous eaters and drinkers, or less so?
Regardless of who you are entertaining, take a classic approach to building the tray — three cheeses: one hard, one soft and one blue. If you have guests who don’t care for blue cheese, try a classic Stilton from England or Maytag Blue from Wisconsin. One trick is to add a little local honey or jam to serve alongside. If you are having some great Italian wines like Prosecco and Sangiovese and or Nebbiolo, you can choose three Italian cheeses. My favorites are Pecorino Toscano (a six-month aged sheep’s milk cheese), Robiola (a soft, mixed milk cheese containing goat, sheep and cow’s milk), and Gorgonzola Dolce (a nice semi-soft blue cheese made of cow’s milk). To keep it simple add walnuts or marcona almonds from Spain, a few pieces of quality dried fruit like Turkish apricots, and seasonal fruit like berries and figs in the summer or pears and apples in fall. I like to offer a mixed medium for cheese “carriers.” A cracker with a light addition of rosemary and olive oil and a baguette cut into pieces and served toasted or plain. Keep it simple, interesting and tasty. Open the wines 10 to 20 minutes in advance — except a sparkling —and bring the cheese up to room temperature 30 to 45 minutes before serving.
If your company eats meat, add a little charcuterie. Charcuterie is the “art” of preparing meat in various forms by preserving it — prosciutto, salami, bacon, sausages and pâté, to name a few. I like to use two meats: speck, smoked prosciutto from Alto Adige in Italy, and sopresatta or salami, like Milano, made with white wine and black pepper. The salty and herbal flavors of the meats can pair well with wines that have been oak-aged like a California chardonnay or Spanish Priorat made from grenache. Classic pairings of pâté and Champagne are always a great addition. Try adding cornichons, tiny French pickles, and olives.
For a larger party, offer an additional cheese or cheese spread. A fresh chèvre from a local source is a good spreadable option, or perhaps a well-made pimento cheese spread, low on the mayo, can be a fun, regionally inspired complement to the mix. In addition to wine, offer a well-made craft beer to pair with the charcuterie and olives. Stout or a wheat beer, like hefeweizen, pairs nicely with cheese and salty meats.
With a larger group always cut a few pieces of cheese in advance so your guests will know how to cut and eat it, otherwise you’ll be staring at a solid block of cheese all night. The thing I love about a cheese board is how easy it is to make it your own. Add fresh herbs from your garden in the summer or your mom’s homemade jam to pair with the cheeses. Whatever you like will be sure to delight. You can choose the wine around the cheese or the cheese around the wine. Make it an “All American” board with cheeses from the United States paired with wines from California and Washington, or go full French or Italian. Keep it simple or go all out. Snack or meal, you can’t go wrong. h
Angela Sanchez was in the wine industry for 20 years and was lucky enough to travel the world drinking wine and eating cheese.