Like most culinary endeavors, designing a cheese plate demands contrast and balance. While there must be variety, there must also be a certain harmony. That is the Zen of the food world, and such enlightenment can be achieved with as few as three cheeses if operating under a tight budget. Given the opportunity to construct "the ultimate cheese plate" invites a bit more artistic freedom, but the same parameters apply. First, consider the source of milk -- cow, goat, and sheep all deserve representation. Many individuals claim to hate at least one of these, but often flavor profiles vary drastically depending more on the cheesemaker's treatment of the milk than the type of milk. (In other words, start with an open mind and develop your opinions after much tasting.)
Next, one must consider the texture of the cheese, which brings up a very important point -- temperature. All cheeses should be tempered, or brought to room temperature, before serving. Cold cheese simply does not exude flavor. Allow the cheese to sit out for an hour and then observe the texture. Does it ooze? Does it crumble? There are, of course, more technical terms that can be used -- soft-ripened, washed rind, or blue-veined -- to explain the texture and color of cheese, but start basic. Your offerings should include creamy, hard, and blue, as your mouth will appreciate the tactile titillation provided by these varied consistencies. Just imagine tasting one super-creamy cheese after another. As wonderfully indulgent as this sounds, you and your palate might just fall asleep, and that is not the objective.
Finally, don't forget origin. There was a day not so long ago when most great cheeses came from Europe, but that is far from true in modern times. Today, outstanding creameries abound in the United States and elsewhere. While the old-world cheeses deserve the respect given to any great, ongoing tradition need not define your plate. Seek out small, eclectic creameries with the help of your cheese monger. There are several impressive cheese counters in the Charleston area and the more time you spend investigating their wares, the better fromage aficionado you'll be.
Where to get your chevre fix
Avondale Wine and Cheese
West Ashley. 813-B Hwy. 17-S. 769-5444
West Ashley. 74 Folly Road Blvd. 769-4800
O'Hara and Flynn
Downtown. 160 E. Bay St. 534-1916
Mt. Pleasant. 1640 Palmetto Grande Dr. 216-1916
Downtown. 334 E. Bay St. 577-0094
Whole Foods Market
Mt. Pleasant. 923 Houston Northcutt Blvd. 971-7240
The Ultimate Cheese Plate
1) Tarago River Triple Cream
$26.99 per pound
This cow's milk cheese oozes after 10 minutes at room temperature. On the tongue, the salt hits you first, then the sweet cream, making it positively addictive. It hails from Australia (just outside of Melbourne) and is one of many great products put out by the Tarago River Cheese Factory, a joint venture between a family of cheesemakers and a family of farmers.
$17.99 per pound
Styled after Taleggio (a classic Italian cow's milk cheese), this new world favorite comes from a family farm in Galax, Va. It starts off with a tang reminiscent of Dijon mustard and then finishes like butter. There is a definite strong bite to this cheese as it's of the washed rind variety, meaning that it is washed with a solution as it ages, inviting desired molding and the characteristic orange hue.
$12.99 per pound
This famed French chevre (goat's milk cheese) dates back to Napoleon. According to legend, the cheese was originally shaped like a pyramid, but after his failed campaign in Egypt, the pyramid's top was flattened. Regardless, this ash-covered cheese from the Loire Valley definitely commands respect. The texture impresses first, with its almost feathery lightness that seems to melt on the tongue with a refreshing tang followed by a light creaminess. There is no doubt that it comes from a goat, but it lacks the strong, barnyard flavors of other chevres.
4) Principe di Sardegna
$22.99 per pound
The Italian island of Sardinia claims fame for its sheep's milk cheese (pecorino), but most do not boast a beautiful blue vein like the Principe. This cheese is a rarity and a real treat. On the tongue the usual earthy element associated with blue cheese hits you first, but then the flavor smoothes out. There is no overwhelming taste of salt or sheep, but rather a creamy finesse with a subtle depth from the blue vein.
$19.99 per pound
This Spanish sheep's milk cheese comes from the Roncal Valley in the Navarre region. The sheep have grazed on the Pyrenees slopes since the 13th century, and the flavor of their mountain fodder comes through in this cheese. It starts sweet and then finishes with a rich nuttiness that coats the mouth, causing an almost immediate desire to sample again and decipher its nuances.
6) Accompaniments (Cornichons, Marcona Almonds)
Having a little something to nibble between bites of cheese seems almost as important as having something to sip. The nibble might be the addictive petite pickle known as the cornichon or a salty, buttery Marcona almond from Spain. Fruit is always an easy option, but be sure that it does not overwhelm, as the idea is to cleanse the palate.
The debate over the perfect vehicle for cheese really is a personal decision. Some prefer a crusty, fresh baguette, while others prefer a very basic cracker. The main objective should be to avoid any flavor that will take away from the cheese.