By Lisa Page
I’ve thrown more than a few wine parties where I’ve served cheese, but the focus is always on the wine. Why is it that we go wine tasting, but we never go cheese tasting? Midtown has plenty of wine spots (58 Degrees being my personal favorite) with the token cheese platter on the menu, but there are no “cheese spots.” Don’t get me wrong – the cheese platter is a fabulous accompaniment to a glass of wine – but I don’t think cheese has received the attention it deserves.
It was this cheese imbalance that I set out to correct with a recent party at my home. After all, California is not just known for great wine but also for our happy cows, and presumably they make some great cheese too (as do our goats and our sheep). So I decided to find out….
Let me preface this by saying that I don’t go to Taylor’s or Trader Joe’s or the Nugget Market in West Sac without looking at, and often buying from, their amazing specialty cheese sections. Because of these fabulous aisles, I’ve permanently tossed grated parmesan cheese for the real thing and now top turkey burgers with aged sharp cheddar.
And yet, I had no idea there were so many cheese varieties until I started shopping for my party. It’s like wine – there are French cheeses and Italian cheeses and California cheeses – and even some regions that don’t make wine like Ireland and Holland. I figure the Irish must pair their aged white cheddar with Guinness like we pair goat cheese with viognier.
I decided to pick out some cheeses I’d heard of and some I hadn’t, and ended up with a cheese from each of the following five categories:
- Blue cheese: the most intense. I went with a crumbly gorgonzola, a veined Italian blue cheese made from unskimmed cow’s and/or goat’s milk. The greenish-blue penicillin mould imparts a sharp, spicy flavor and provides an excellent contrast to the rich, creamy cheese. Fun fact: the name comes from Gorgonzola, a small town near Milan, Italy.
- Semi-firm cheese: subtle but rich. I picked out a cheese I’d never heard of before but came to appreciate after a few taste tests at the Nugget – vlaskaas, a cheese native to Holland with a creamy yellow meat that is slightly richer tasting than gouda with a mildly sweet overtone. Firm in texture, this cheese becomes sharper as it ages. It goes well with hearty crackers and a variety of meats.
- Super-aged cheese: sharp and nutty. I chose pecorino romano, a hard, salty Italian cheese. It goes great with fruit and meats like prosciutto.
- Pungent cheese: A.k.a. stinky. I went with another new-to-me cheese called taleggio. I thought it was French at first, but it is actually Italian and one of the oldest softest cheeses around the world. I tend to favor the Italians in my cheese, wine and food over the French.
- Mild cheese: Soft and creamy. The choice for this category is a hybrid. Humboldt Fog, which I picked because it’s my favorite cheese and also because it’s made in Humboldt County. Its name reminds me of the many foggy days I experienced growing up there. It’s a creamy, light and mildly acidic cheese with a stronger flavor near the rind. It is delightful on a light cracker topped with a pear slice.
I chose the following items to compliment my cheese selection: grapes, crackers, baguettes, honey, salami, prosciutto, pears, dried apricots, Dijon mustard, and fig jam.
Must haves (for your own cheese party):
- A few cheese boards, platters or plates for the cheeses.
- Some small bowls and plates for the accompaniments.
- Cheese spreaders and knives.
Even though I advertised the party as a cheese party, people were still surprised by the sheer amount of it throughout my kitchen and dining room. To be fair, I did overbuy, as I always do for a party, but this spread was not for the lactose intolerant. There was one platter with salami and vlaskaas and another with taglioni and pears and another with goat cheese and fig jam – all this surrounded by sausages, creole shrimp, bread, pasta salad, spinach salad, and yes, more cheese. The group favorite (based on sheer volume consumed) was Humboldt Fog and vlaskaas was a close second. These were also my top picks, and I recommend serving them at a cheese party of your own.
Last but not least…
Did you notice I talked all about the party and didn’t mention wine – not once? Given my goal to try and level the playing field between wine and cheese (at least for a night), I’ll just briefly mention it. My party was timed nicely with the five cent sale at BevMo. I picked out a Hahn Estates Syrah from 2007 and a couple bottles of New Gewurtz, a Gewürztraminer from Mendocino, which is along the North Coast. The syrah paired nicely with the taleggio and the vlaskaas and the riesling with the pecorino romano and the Humboldt Fog, but for once, they were not the center of attention. If just for one night, my guests left talking about the cheese instead of the wine.
EDITOR’s NOTE: What cheeses are you serving at your holiday party? What should hostesses stay away from? Please send in these and any other holiday party tips into girlsonthegrid AT gmail DOT com.