There's always a reason to party, but with the holidays within sight, it becomes even more apparent that planning these fun events should begin now. One of the easiest parties to throw on the spur of the moment or with ample planning time is a cheese tasting party.
Add a few bottles of wine and let the party begin.
Cheeses are plentiful, so selecting what to have at a holiday party can seem a daunting task, but it does not have to be that way.
Cheese Party 101
First, it's good to have a general understanding of the eight styles of cheese:
Fresh (some include Cottage, Cream, Goat, Mascarpone, Mozzarella, Feta, Farmers, Ricotta);
Semi-Soft (Havarti, Edam, Gouda, Colby, Gouda, Monterey Jack);
Soft-Ripened (Brie, Camembert)
Surface-Ripened (Banon, Brebiou, St. Maure, Cravanzina, La Tur, Rocchetta);
Semi-Hard (Cheddar, Cheshire, Gloucester, Double Gloucester, Sage Derby, Cantal, Madrigal, Graviera, Gouda, Asiago, Caciocavallo, Pecorino Romano, Provolone, Jarlsberg, Gruyère, Fontina, Swiss, Romano);
Hard (Parmigiano-Reggiano, Pecorino Romano, Cotija, Parmesan);
Blue (Blue Castello, Stilton, Roquefort, Gorgonzola, Maytag Blue);
Washed-Rind (Chimay, Stinking Bishop, Oka, Esrom, Beaufort, Munster, Limburger, Taleggio, Brick, Chaubier)cheeses.
Also, it's important to know that variations are too numerous to count. Add to that the fact artisan cheeses are continually being made and marketed from the United States and around the world, and you have an industry that appears to be booming.
Recently, the California Cheese Advisory Board launched a promotional campaign in Tulsa and Oklahoma City to introduce Real California Cheeses to Oklahomans; these are found in such stores as Wal-Mart, Buy For Less, Williams, United, Crest Foods, Homeland and Reasor's.
California is the nation's second-largest producer of cheese and is home to more than 50 cheesemakers who produce 250 varieties and styles.
Lynne Devereux, Real California Cheese Expert, visited UTW offices and a few weeks ago and offered her suggestions for throwing a cheese party. This former chef offered samples of California cheeses now available in Tulsa and offered suggestions on how to serve these California cheeses for holiday parties.
"These California cheeses are flavorful, delicious and perfect crowd-pleasers for easy entertaining," says Devereux. Locating these cheeses is easy: look for the round seal depicting the image of California with a rising sun and rolling plains on a golden, Cheddar cheese-colored background.
Look for any new cheeses when planning a cheese party to expand your knowledge of cheeses and challenge the palates of your guests.
Handle with Care
It is important to know how to handle cheeses once purchased.
If cheeses are wrapped in plastic film from the store, unwrap them at once when you bring them home--this film smothers cheeses, making it hard for them to breathe and give off moisture. High moisture cheeses (feta and fresh goat cheese) store well in plastic airtight containers. Wrap all but the driest cheeses in waxed paper and place in a lidded container. It's fine to mix and matches cheeses in the same container, except blue cheeses which require their own individual container, so their molds do not "travel" onto other cheeses.
Dry cheeses (Parmigiano-Reggiano) have little moisture to lose, so a tight foil wrap is fine with these. Then, refrigerate all cheeses.
Closer to your party's start time, be sure to remove cheeses from the fridge in order that they achieve room temperature. Muted when cold, magnificent aromas, flavors and textures will emerge in cheese when eaten at room temperature. The texture becomes suppler, especially with moist cheese.
Set out small wedges of cheese at least one hour before serving. Unwrap cheeses when taken from the fridge to avoid trapping moisture which will be released as they warm. When setting cheeses out for warming, cover them with a cheese cloth or cake cover to prevent drying. Some blue cheeses "weep" or release moisture as they warm--pat these cheeses dry before serving.
After the party, the integrity of cheeses is compromised each time they go in and out the fridge, so buy only what you think you'll eat fairly quickly, and wrap as described above.
Cheese of Choice
Now it's time to get ready for the party. Naturally, taking time to plan a party is ideal and less stressful for all, but if preparing for an impromptu seasonal gathering, a cheese tasting party is ideal. Instinct and ingenuity kick in at this point.
Go with what you know. Shop at a local grocer and select the cheeses you enjoy. A suggestion is to pay a visit to a grocer such as Petty's Fine Foods (1964 Utica Square) or Wild Oats Natural Marketplace (1401 E. 41st St.) or a business that specializes in cheeses, such as LaDonna's Fancy Foods, Inc. (1523 E. 15th) and ask for recommendations of what cheeses would make a hit at a party.
Consider: Do you like soft, creamy cheeses or firmer cheeses? Do you like mild and strong cheeses? Do you like blue cheeses? Do you like salty cheeses? It's important to ask for help at this point, no matter how busy the store might be or how tight your schedule is. Oftentimes, you can request to taste a cheese before purchasing. This is ideal!
I would recommend selecting a variety of types and flavors for your party.
Also, while at the grocer, pick up some cheese accompaniments: crostini, baguette slices, mango chutney, toasted pecans, pistachio nuts, walnuts, water crackers, green and black olives, marinated mushrooms, fresh cherries, apples, dried figs or cherries, cherry tomatoes and/or thin slices of prosciutto.
Then, a trip to the local wine and spirits store is imperative to select nice wines to pair with the cheeses. Selecting cheeses is like deciding upon wines: the task can be even more overwhelming, so do some research or simply ask the sommelier (wine expert) for assistance, telling her or him what types of cheeses you will be serving, the number of people at your party and the price range you desire. Pick a red and white, and possibly a fine Port.
As a test, at 8:30 one morning, I decided to throw a cheese party beginning at 6pm for six guests, just for fun. Too late for mailing invitations, phone calls sufficed and my selection of guests were eager to join in on the fun. After visits to four stores to select cheeses, food accompaniments and wines, I was home by 1pm.
Wines recommended to me from the sommelier at Parkhill Liquors and Wines (5111 S. Lewis)for the evening included Bernardus Winery's 2005 Monterey County Sauvignon Blanc; Martin Ray Winery's 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon; Quinta das Carvalhas Porto Tawny. In addition, and my friend helping me with the party selected a bottle of Chimay Ale, brewed by Trappist Monks from Belgium.
By 4:30pm, I began the preparation of the party. Devereux, the Cheese Expert, suggests to "serve cheeses on an interesting tray or wood board, with a knife for each cheese" and moreover to "arrange accompaniments in colorful small bowls and let your guests create their own combinations." Good plan. This was a nice presentation. (And, as a tip to guests at a cheese party, consider how you will cut the cheeses to leave them looking attractive for the next guest, preferably as close as possible to the original shape of the cheese!)
Once paper/foil was removed, cheeses were arranged on large platters (a large marble slab and a few wooden cheese plates worked well for me) and decorated with fresh herbs and leaves from my garden. Rind on cheeses is a natural wrap and preserves the integrity of the cheese, as well as part of the visual appeal--so leave it on. Guests may remove it as they desire. It's best to have separate knives for each cheese to avoid cross-contamination.
Cheese knives include a cheese plane, good for shaving semi-hard and hard cheeses; an offset cheese knife, good for soft cheeses and all others except hard cheeses; a two-handed knife for semi-hard and hard cheeses; a medium knife with a forked tip; an all purpose knife for soft or semi-hard cheeses; a short stubby, quasi-triangular knife with a pointed tip, good for digging out chunks of cheese rather than cutting slices; and a long knife with large holes in the blade with a forked tip, called a "skeleton" knife which is good for soft cheeses, for they do not stick to the holey blade.
For this party, my interest was to give my guests a sampling of a good variety of cheeses.. My list of cheeses included the following style and cheese name: Fresh: Real California Cheese Fresh Mozzarella and Fresh Mozzarella Smoked, the latter went well with fresh prosciutto and on a small baguette with a little mango chutney.
I also purchased the Real California "cherry sized" Fresh Mozzarella Ciliegine and Marinated. These are great to pop into the mouth with ease or align on a tooth pick with cherry tomatoes, making a nice presentation. My semi-soft selections included: DeMill Colby Cheese and Landmark Monterey Jack California Cheese. Both were good with the wines.
Representing the semi-hard, I chose: Landmark Raw Milk Goat Cheddar, Cheddar Ilcester Applewood Smoked English and Dehesa de los Llanos Manchego, a cheese from Spain. The Goat Cheddar had a zippiness and earthiness to it while the Cheddar had a mild smoked flavor and went well with the prosciutto. The Manchego had a very mild sheep milk flavor and likewise went well with the prosciutto.
Blue cheese were represented by: Maytag Blue, made in Iowa, and Double Gloucester with Blue Stilton from Britain. (Blue cheeses are an interesting category: most are made with the mold Penicillium roqueforti, placed in them which was originally found from moldy bread, but another blue mold, Penicillium glaucoma is used primarily in Gorgonzola cheese.
Blue cheeses do have a common characteristic: they are salty.) We agreed the Double Gloucester made a nice plate presentation as the Stilton was layered among the Gloucester, and it had a "slap you in the face" type of effect. Both Blues were excellent with the Port. (A very British tradition at Christmas is to have Stilton, a nice Port and walnuts as a snack or accompaniment before or after dinner.)
The washed-rind cheeses I selected inclue: Grand Classique Chimay Grand Cru Fromage Trappiste from Belgium and Taleggio, originally form the Lombardy region of Italy. The Chimay was soft and creamy with a nice depth to it, pairing well with the Chimay beer; the Taleggio was also creamy and was a bit assertive to the taste buds. Both cheeses had a crispy, salty rind, especially found in the Chimay cheese. Smells were strong for both, but not unpleasant.
For a light finish to this most successful cheese party, my guests dipped fresh strawberries in California's Mozzarella Fresca Ricotta.
If time is on your side, come to know the backgrounds of the cheeses, and present your knowledge at the party for fun conversation. For example, the legend of Monterey Jack cheese which Devereux told. Spanish missionaries who arrived in California in the 18th century made an early form of Jack cheese they called queso del pais or "country cheese." After the missionaries left, farmers continued this style of cheese making, which evolved sometime in the 1800s into the cheese we now know as Monterey Jack.
The evening was an overwhelming success, and the best part is that the guests thought I had planned this party days ahead!
Try these cheeses and accompaniment ideas when you host your own cheese party.
Fresh, Italian-style cheese: marinated fresh mozzarella, smoked fresh mozzarella
Make a party quick and easy! Thread cheese alternately on cocktail toothpick with cherry tomatoes
Try: Mozzarella Fresca from Tipton, CA
California Hispanic-style cheeses: Panela (fresh) and Cotija (dry & crumbly)
Good quality tortilla chips, spread with mango lime salsa, and top with crumbled Hispanic cheese.
Try: Karoun Dairies from Los Angeles, CA
A selection of California Monterey Jack Cheese: traditional, pesto and pepper jack
Tasting from mild (traditional), to spicy (pesto and pepper jack). Arrange a party tray with whole grain crackers and sliced baguette, with grapes.
Try: Sonoma Jack from Sonoma, CA
Specialty Cheddars: Aged Raw Milk Farmstead, and Hopscotch (made with beer!)
Good spiced almonds, sliced crisp apples and crackers are perfect for these flavorful, traditional, hand-made Cheddars.
Try: Fiscalini Farmstead from Modesto, CA
Dessert course: Mascarpone Dolce
An elegant and easy dessert or afternoon treat is Italian-style cream cheese with fresh strawberries or biscotti cookies.
Try: Mozzarella Fresca from Tipton, CA
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