There is little better about life than cheese, especially the good stuff that you get at places like Scardello Artisan Cheese in Oak Lawn. Fancy cheese plates are expensive at restaurants, but it's easy to do a good DIY job at home -- if you know what to get.
Cheesemonger Rich Rogers is easily the most knowledgeable cheese nerd in Dallas, and he wants to help you impress your friends by creating the best at-home cheese plate possible. We visited him recently to get some pointers on building an Instagram-ready cheese plate.
Before you decide on your picks from all the fancy raw milk imported cheeses Scardello has to offer, Rogers says that you first have to decide how you're planning to serve them. If you're serving cheese as a light appetizer, 1 ½ ounces of cheese per guest should suffice. If it's the focus of your wine and cheese party, you'll need between 2 and 3 ounces per person.
You'll also have to figure out how adventurous your guests are. If you hang out with a bunch of hipster foodie snobs, you can assemble a cheese board that looks very similar to those offered at some of the city's best restaurants. If your crowd is a little more tame, you can still do a much better job than those boring colby jack cubes and slices of provolone from Target that you were planning to serve.
Inside the stuffed cheese case, Rogers pulls out no less than 10 rare and sometimes weird cheeses, each with their own unique story and flavor profile, to explain to me the process of assembling a perfectly balanced cheese plate. We first sample a fresh goat's milk cheese imported from the Leon region of Spain called Viegadarte. The log of cheese is covered in ash, which adds a strange-but-awesome earthy flavor. Unlike tangier goat cheeses, Viegadarte is smooth and easy to enjoy.
Another funky cheese, Miranda, is a raw cow's milk cheese made by a guy from Brooklyn who turned his basement into a cheese cave before starting the award-winning Vulto Creamery. This cheese is crafted from curds leftover from producing a rare cow's milk cheese called Ouleout, then rinsed in absinthe to bring out the cheese's grassy notes.
More accessible cheeses, like the delicately veiny Jersey Blue pictured below, offer complex but subtle flavors. Even people who don't like the sharp tang of blue cheese could enjoy a little slice of this cheese on a cracker. A triple-cream brie with a layer of shaved truffles in between is impeccably fancy, but also perfectly acceptable for a dinner party with your picky friend.
Surprisingly, someone this knowledgeable about cheese is no snob. Each time I asked Rogers for hard-and-fast, irrefutable rules that govern the assemblage of cheese plates, like Thou Shalt Not Consider Pepper Jack a Cheese Fancy Enough for Your Board, he simply said that "people should choose what they like. If it's weird to someone else, all that matters is that you like it."
He's also a big fan of theming your cheese boards, and there are tons of different ways to do that. You can choose cheeses crafted in the same region, like France or Spain, or serving all sheep or goat milk cheeses. "Even a plate of five different types of cheddar," says Rogers, "can provide five completely different flavor profiles, and that can be really interesting."
The cheeses, though, are really just the starting point for building the perfect plate. Once you've decided on the types of cheese you're going to serve, you now have to decide on the accoutrements your plan to serve alongside. The right charcuterie, pickles, and jams can really bring out the flavor of the cheeses you've chosen.
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Incorporating both sweet and savory elements into your plate can help you accommodate the flavor profiles of each cheese you serve. Pickles and cheddar are a match made in heaven, as are blue cheese and honey. Nuts like almonds and walnuts are universally good with cheese, along with olives. Whole grain mustards are also good with most hard cheeses.
According to Rogers, "A good rule of thumb for fruit is to serve soft cheeses with fresh fruit, and hard cheeses with dried fruits. Soft cheese goes really, really well with berries, especially something triple cream. It's like that classic berries and cream combination." In-store, he offers dried fruit ranging from dried heirloom California peaches to traditional black mission figs.
Some ingredients, though, connect on a much deeper level. "Proscuitto di Parma and Parmigiano Reggiano, for example, both come from the same region. Many times, it's the same producers who are making both the meat and the cheese. After the cheese is made, pigs are fed the whey that's leftover from production, so there's almost like a natural connection between these two ingredients," says Rogers.
Now that your plate is fully assembled with delicious cheeses and accoutrements like fruit and pickles, you'll want to choose a cracker that serves as a kind of canvas for the flavor combinations that you've created. "I like to use a bread or cracker that is as bland as possible, like baguette, to avoid taking away from the character of the cheese."