This past weekend I taught a class at the wonderful TerraVITA Event in Chapel Hill, an amazing culinary education seminar highlighting sustainable and local food & beverage. The event is organized for Colleen Mitten, whom I have to give a big high five for orchestrating such a fabulous get together (big ups to Breana Lai Beck and Amanda Miller as well)! Every year it gets better and better.
I had the great opportunity to teach alongside Inez Ribustello, Sommelier at On the Square in Tarboro, NC, and Breana Lai Beck, food nutritionist and writer for Chapel Hill Magazine and regular instructor here at Southern Season. Inez naturally did the wine pairings and Breana made some amazing dishes incorporating the cheeses I chose, including the most incredible Ravioli stuffed with Goat Lady Dairy Smoked Round, mixed with leeks, Jamon ham and walnuts.
Anyhow, without going off too much on the event, my job was, naturally, to select the cheese and put together a presentable cheese plate (see below). When I select cheese I find it’s best to choose a variety of flavors and textures including crumbly, creamy, semi-firm and firm. I personally find it good to limit the variety as well, sometimes when you have too many cheeses you tend to over-saturated your palate and take away from the uniqueness of the cheese. The cheese plate I put together for TerraVITA included the Smoked Mountain Round, Grayson from Meadow Creek Dairy, Montgomery’s Cheddar from Neals Yard and Rogue River Blue from Rogue Creamery .
The progression was primarily textural as we started with the soft, creamy goats milk Mountain round first, leading into the Grayson which has a semi-soft creamy, meaty texture. The third cheese was the cheddar, which texturally broke the rule but flavor-wise fell between the washed rind and the big flavors of the creamy blue. It’s important to present a flow, whether or not one chooses to follow that flow is entirely up to them.
Aesthetically, I like to keep it simple. I find cheese to have an inherit beauty and plates look too crowded and untidy when covered with blobs of honey and surrounded by mountains of fruit, nuts and chocolate. Now this was a tasting so it had to be pretty organized for the sake of people eating the right cheese at the right time but I still find many of my rules apply. This isn’t to say those pairings or accompaniments don’t work but remember to give the cheese its space and honor its visual prowess.
Give the cheese height. Rather than leave the plate looking flat, cut one piece in two, allowing it to lean onto the bottom bit. This does two things: makes it look more rustic and interesting but also creates smaller pieces one can take from. People at dinner parties or out on the town tend to be on their best manners so they don’t want to give off any presumption of gluttonous behavior.
The most important part to creating an amazing cheese plate is to visit the cheese counter and ask for what tastes really, really good! Cheese changes all the time, and no two wheels are identical, so even if you know a cheese very well it’s best to try before you buy to see if it’s indeed what you want. Our cheese mongers always know what tastes best and are eager to share with others!
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