PHOTOS BY MICHAEL PIAZZA
Cheese plates are popular for many reasons: They require no cooking, look festive and elegant, their DIY nature caters to picky eaters and cheese is a much-loved conversation starter, an expression of local terroir.
While local cheese is always in season, your winter cheese board will look and taste a bit different from summer’s. The cheeses themselves might vary in flavor based on the animal’s seasonal diet—cow milk is richer and fattier in winter, when they’re eating hay rather than grazing on fresh grass. And when local orchard fruit and berries are scarce, you’ll need to be creative with your accompaniments. But with a little care and attention at the shop, your winter cheese plate can be a showstopper.
It need not be complex. For a small gathering, you might go the minimalist route and buy one beautiful bloomy-rind cheese and serve with a little pot of fruit mostarda, a pile of hothouse arugula and a spoon. To feed more people, choose three to five cheeses with a variety of textures (unctuous, crumbly, semisoft) and milks (cow, sheep, goat). Aim to balance the platter as you would a salad, cutting richness with acidity, pairing peppery with sweet.
Have you noticed that blue cheese and walnuts pair well in salads? That apples are great with cheddar? Bring those lessons to your cheese plate. If you pickled ramps or jarred some jam this year, here is a terrific opportunity to showcase local produce from warmer months. While your summer board might embrace that season’s abundance—crowded with berries and cascades of Concord grapes—a relatively austere winter board can maintain focus on the cheese itself. Offer simple sliced baguette; textured, flavorful crackers, like Brewers Crackers; and a gluten-free option like Onesto’s Sea Salt Crackers. Make sure you have separate knives for each cheese and consider slicing, cubing or crumbling ahead (depending on the cheese) to make it easy for your guests to serve themselves.
Next, choose a few seasonal accompaniments, some local and some from far away:
dried Blenheim apricots or figs
fresh apple, quince or pear slices, tossed with lemon juice
Spanish Marcona almonds, toasted walnuts or raw hazelnuts
local honey, preserves, chutney or mostarda
pickled ramps, onions or cornichons
For a bit more information on serving Massachusetts-made artisan cheeses, I turned to a few local experts. Beth Falk, owner of Lowell’s Mill City Cheesemongers, recommends cheeses that are “complemented by what I think of as ‘warm’ winter spices, like cloves, rosemary and vanilla” for a winter plate. ‘Jane Goodall,’ a crumbly goat-milk cheese from Dancing Goats Dairy in Newbury, is rubbed with cocoa powder. The cocoa adds just a hint of mellow, toasty flavor but certainly doesn’t create a ‘chocolate cheese.’”
Both Beth and Katie Quinn of Mullahy’s Artisan Cheeses and Specialty Foods in Hudson recommend Couët Farm & Fromagerie’s ‘Fran de Maquis.’ “Coated in a blend of rosemary, fennel, savory and juniper berries, this soft, fresh cow-milk cheese is sublime,” says Falk. “Marie-Laure Couët took her inspiration from a classic Corsican sheep-milk cheese and made this style her own. I love it on a toasted crusty baguette with a drizzle of strong extra-virgin olive oil, paired with a Spiced Pear Collins, a gin cocktail made with pear purée, rosemary and cloves.” Quinn also recommends Great Hill Blue from Marion, and Tobasi from Williamstown’s Cricket Creek Farm, “reminiscent of a cross between a French Muenster and Taleggio,” with sour cherry spread.
Jenn Mason of Curds & Co. in Brookline serves Westfield Capri, “a beautiful local chevré that is everything you want a chevré to be: bright, tangy and begging for interesting pairings” alongside “something firm like Cricket Creek’s Maggie’s Round. This is a cheese that is just delightful to nibble on or shred on anything. On a platter you’d find me pairing it with something sweet and savory like Potlicker Kitchen’s Garlic and Rosemary Jam.”
Valerie Gurdal, owner of Formaggio Kitchen South End, also recommends Cricket Creek Maggie’s Round. “It is styled after the Italian Alpine cheeses; it’s toothsome, earthy, yet bright and during the winter months I serve it with a homemade onion jam for a savory note or an orange marmalade to bring out the citrus notes of the cheese,” she says.
To assemble a top-notch platter, don’t hesitate to ask a professional for help. The mongers at the women-owned shops listed below will help you discover new cheeses and surprising pairings you might not find on your own.
Curds & Co., Brookline
Formaggio Kitchen South End, Boston
Mill City Cheesemongers, Lowell
Mullahy’s Cheese Shop, Hudson
Pamplemousse, Salem and Reading
Pecorino Artisanal Cheeses and Fine Wine, North Grafton
This story appeared in the Winter 2019 issue.
Rachel is a Cambridge-based cook, writer, event producer and Executive Director of the Friday Night Supper Program in Boston's Back Bay.