Serving Cheese with Style
There is a difference between cheese platters and cheese boards. Cheese platters are stacked with cheese, meats, nuts and fruit, and are meant for large groups—they are made for feeding frenzies. Boards are about presentation and appreciation. A good cheese board is almost like a painter’s palette—actually that’s a good metaphor, because tasting is sometimes about seeing the “colors” separately, but also about blending, pairing and experimenting. A good cheese board features cheese as part of a panoply of textures and senses—sweet, salty, hard, soft, sour, acidic, savory or blue, just to name a few possibilities.
There are no hard-and-fast rules for building a cheese platter. Consider your audience and consider what’s available. Don’t go overboard. As Marnie Clarke, co-owner of Cheese Cave in Claremont says, “Sometimes people say odds always look better, but sometimes four, two, or even one cheese is perfect.” There are special cheeses that are seasonal and rare—like Jasper Hill’s Winnimere or Uplands Cheese’s Rush Creek Reserve—that are special enough to stand alone. Other combinations on a board could include different styles of cheese, like a hard or semi-hard cheese, a soft-ripened cheese and a blue. Perhaps different milks could be featured—cow, goat, or sheep. Cheese boards could even feature international regions or domestic locales. If you don’t know the group, a crowd-pleaser like a triple-creme is always a nice inclusion.
But whatever you choose, the board should be attractive and inviting, and open to experimentation with flavor and texture combinations. Bread or crackers are a must for most people. I like making my own crostini, pan-toasted in butter. Whatever you do, have fun, and experiment. The following is a pictorial journey of some So-Cal locations I’ve found that offer attractive cheese boards.
Wheel House Cheese and Wine
12954 W Washington Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90066
424-289-9167 dark Mondays
Right between Culver City and Marina del Rey, Wheel House Cheese and Wine is the cheese lover’s equivalent of a production brewery tasting room. There is a spacious back patio where you can take your cheese board along with a bottle of wine or beer when I visited the beer offerings were limited. The shop does regular Wednesday wine tastings, and has special events that feature melted Raclette or another special cheese selection.
Their taster boards are the “Monger’s Choice Small” at $18 that offers three cheeses, quince paste, macron almonds and crostini, the “Monger’s Choice Large” $25 that offers five cheeses, and then “The Wheel House” $30 which offers three cheeses and three meats along with some Cornichon, if you’re into tiny pickles. Like all good cheese shops, you should communicate with your cheesemonger about what you like and what you want to avoid. It does help to speak the language of cheese. My board included VonTrapp Farmstead Oma, Red Witch and Monte Enebro, a wonderful goat cheese that is encased in blue mold. Our board was not for the faint of heart!
Bottlecraft Beer Shop and Venissimo Cheese
3007 University Ave, North Park San Diego, CA 92104
Nestled in the vibrant North Park neighborhood, the successful Bottlecraft bottle shop teamed up with San Diego’s Venissimo Cheese in 2014 to offer a unique cheese and beer tasting experience. In their small, but accommodating table area, you can order the preset “Bottlecraft Pairing” $10 for small and $20 for large where the shop chooses the cheeses and beers tasters separate, or try the “Trifecta” $20 where you customize your board and for $8 more, they’ll add some meat.
My “Trifecta” board included Chimay’s Vieux, the much-sought-after Martell and Son’s Stinking Bishop, paprika-washed Spanish Ibores and La Chaux’s Petit Vaccarinus. Dried apricots, corn nuts, and of course crostini came with this very special board. With a craft beer sampler, and plenty of cheese and beer-related conversation, it was a little piece of heaven in North Park.
Cheese Cave Claremont
325 Yale Ave, Claremont, CA 91711
The ever-popular Cheese Cave in Claremont Village may not have a lot of seating area for cheese sampling, but you can custom order just about anything and have it wrapped or pre-cut and placed in an attractive box for take-out. When they do create a cheese board, it is always an attractive and artful presentation. The cheese board demonstrated here features some interesting cheeses that can’t be found even in high-end grocery chains. In November, their sister shop, DTLA Cheese, offered a $25 cheese board where you could choose five samples—cheese, salumi or both.
Cheese Cave is the perfect stop for creating your cheese board because you can buy all of the accouterments—nuts, dried fruit and Cornichon—pre-packaged and ready to create your perfect cheese board at home.
Highland Park Brewing / Hermosillo Bar
5127 York Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90042
A couple miles down the street from Occidental College, Highland Park Brewing is unique in the world of California’s no-food production breweries—it shares space with the Hermosillo Bar, so it is able to serve food and host guest taps from mostly local-area breweries. Highland Park beer is awesome with its strong offerings of Saisons, Pale Ales and Stouts, but if you’re in the mood for Eagle Rock, Craftsman, Beachwood or Noble, you have some wonderfully tough decisions to make.
I love ordering cheese boards in bars because I know it’s not going to be some rare cheese that’s hard-to-find—it’s going to be crowd pleasers, and it’s probably going to give you a little more food for the money.
Case in point is the “Cheese & Charcuterie” board, with three cheeses and three meats, ringing in at $16. You can order a cheese-only or meat-only version for $10, but why not get the best of both worlds? The featured cheeses when I visited were St. Agur’s Blue, Spanish Cana de Cabra a Spanish version of Bucheron and Bianco Sardo, an Italian hard cheese similar to a Parmesan. The meats were Chorizo Navarre, Loukanika and a delightful Pork Pistachio Pate. As you can see, the nuts, butter-toasted crostini, fresh apples and honeycomb made this board a nice mixture of textures and sweet and savory flavors.
Congregation Ale House
619 N Azusa Ave, Azusa, CA 91702
With three locations or “chapters” as they like to call them in the greater Los Angeles Azuza, Pasadena, Long Beach, Congregation has always had a stable lineup of pub fare. Their cheese board appetizer, ringing in at $10, is a deal with its generous portions of a generic cheddar, blue cheese, and Chimay’s a la Premiere semisoft cheese. Served with pita bread and apricots, the board is a nice appetizer fit for sharing with a group.
Instead of making breakfast on Sunday mornings, I like to serve cheese to my family of four. Cheese is surprisingly filling, and except for the butter-seared crostini, preparation is fairly quick. On the board above, I selected Jasper Hill’s washed-rind Willoughby, Vermont Creamery’s St. Albans a runny St. Marcellin style, and a colorful French Mimolette—a style where cheese mites help to form the rind. Prunes, dried apricots, and a fig jam round out the savory cheese with some sweetness.
On the board below, I went for a simple presentation of Vermont Creamery’s Bonne Bouche, an ash-ripened goat cheese, French Pont-l’Évêque bottom left, and Italy’s La Tur, a goat, cow, and sheep milk brie that is nothing short of amazing at just about any stage of ripeness. As you can see, I like sweet on Sunday mornings, and avoid nuts and meats. Like all food, that is entirely a matter of taste.
These places just scratch the surface of cheese boards to be found in the So Cal area. With breweries like Stone and Taps regularly carrying artisan cheese on their menu, the proliferation of gastropubs and wine-tasting shops offering cheese boards, and of course, the slow growth of cheese-centric shops in So Cal, I hope to see more cheese on menus in our region. It fits in well with the tasting ethos sweeping the food and beverage scene.