Embracing the Cheese Course
By Jeanne Carpenter | Photo By Uriah Carpenter 0
Remember when serving a “cheese tray” for guests usually meant one of two things? Either it was December and time for the obligatory holiday cheese ball rolled in finely chopped pecans, served via a fancy-handled cheese spreader with a round of Ritz crackers for the cousins; or the neighbors were coming over, so your parents brought out the “good cheese”–blocks of colby and cheddar sliced in pretty little squares and served with Townhouse crackers fresh from the box.
In Wisconsin, those days aren’t so far behind us. While I enjoy a party cheese ball as much as the next person, I have good news: cheesemakers—and especially those in Wisconsin— are crafting more original and artisanal cheeses, which means our options for assembling a cheese tray are now nearly endless. With more than 600 types, styles and varieties of cheeses now being made in the state, bringing out the “good cheese” is easier than ever (or possibly made more difficult with all the choices).
Cheddar Flight Cheese Tray
Perhaps one of the easiest cheese trays to assemble is the cheddar flight. All you need is four aged cheddars, a package of Potter’s Crackers made in Madison, and a fruit chutney. When serving any cheese tray, I like to include a wedge of the cheese in its original form, along with strips or slices of cut cheese (never cubes), so guests can get an idea of how the cheese originally looked, and then taste it at the same time.
With a cheddar flight, it’s important to guide guests in eating the cheese in a specific order. You’ll want to start with the least aged cheddar, and work up to the most aged. This lets your palate adjust and appreciate the differences in taste and complexity as the cheese ages. Here’s a sample cheddar flight, arranged in order, from left to right:
- Two-Year Cheddar from Widmer’s Cheese Cellars in Theresa
- Six-Year Cheddar from Carr Valley Cheese in LaValle
- 10-Year Cheddar from Hook’s Cheese in Mineral Point
- 12- or 15-Year Cheddar from Hook’s (depending on availability)
Each cheddar should be tasted separately, on its own, first without crackers, fruit chutney, or wine, so guests have the opportunity to appreciate the cheese. After the first taste, encourage guests to mix up the tasting with a bit of cracker or chutney, to see how each cheese differs with pairings. If serving wine, consider a Sauvignon Blanc or Cabernet Sauvignon. A wheat beer also pairs well with a flight of cheddars.
Farmstead Cheese Tray
Fifteen years ago, arranging this cheese tray would have been impossible, as very few farmstead cheesemakers existed in Wisconsin. Today, more than 20 call America’s Dairyland home, and they win more awards for their cheeses than makers in any other state.
The key to making a farmstead cheese tray special for your guests is knowing a bit of the story behind each cheese. You’ll want to know the cheesemaker’s name, the type of milk used, and the location of the creamery. All of this information can be found by asking the folks at your local cheese shop or by doing a quick Google search, as most farmstead cheesemakers now have websites. Again, along with strips or slices for tasting, make sure you leave a wedge of each cheese intact on your tray since farmstead cheeses are often the most eye-appealing on the market.
A sample Wisconsin farmstead cheese tray might include:
- Evalon from LaClare Farms in Chilton (goat’s milk)
- Marieke Gouda from Holland’s Family Farm in Thorp (cow’s milk)
- Ocooch Mountain from Hidden Springs Creamery in Westby (sheep’s milk)
- Pleasant Ridge Reserve Extra Aged from Uplands Cheese in Dodgeville (cow’s milk)
These four cheeses present an excellent cross-section of some of the best cheeses made in America, and lucky for us, they’re all crafted by farmstead cheesemakers in Wisconsin. Serve this cheese course with a sliced baguette, honey and fruit–perhaps a few grapes and strawberries–and let guests mix and match cheese and companions as they wish. I’d recommend serving this course with a crisp white wine, such as a Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, or Riesling. A sparkling wine, such as a Moscato d’Asti, is also fun.
Wisconsin Adventure Cheese Tray
Sometimes the best cheese courses are the ones that represent different categories of cheese, such as a soft, semi-hard and blue. This type of course can be the most difficult to assemble, as multiple pairings may be necessary. To make it as easy as possible, consider this combination involving three cheeses, one type of cracker, and a bit of honey and pear:
- Driftless from Hidden Springs Creamery in Westby. This fresh, soft and fluffy sheep’s milk cheese is a nice starter for a cheese course. Try a flavored version, such as lavender and honey, and spread on a Hazelnut Graham Potter’s Cracker for guests.
- Mona from the Wisconsin Sheep Dairy Cooperative, made at Cedar Grove Cheese in Plain. This mixed milk cheese is made from cow and sheep milk and is mild and pleasant. A nice balance between the soft and blue cheeses on this tray.
- Buttermilk Blue from Emmi Roth USA in Monroe. Serve last with a drizzle of honey, Hazelnut Graham Potter’s Cracker and slice of pear. This sweet blue is a nice ending to an adventurous cheese tray.
No matter which cheeses you choose, a cheese tray can be the perfect start or end to a meal—and a great conversation piece in between. Mix and match your favorites and encourage your guests to do the same. It’s hard to go wrong with cheese.
Find the cheeses mentioned here at one of these fine retailers, or order online at many of the cheesemakers' websites (listed within the article):
Metcalfe’s Market, Madison
Driftless Market, Platteville