We do an awful lot of educational programs on our farm. One of the most common questions I get from farmers who are interested in making cheese on the farm is, “What do I make?”. I always suggest that these people invite their friends, neighbors and family to a cheese tasting. Most of these people are familiar with the block commodity cheddar found in the dairy section of the local supermarket.
To do a cheese tasting, I always suggest that you start with 3-5 cheeses. The amount you purchase depends on the number of people you are serving and the stage of the meal that this meal represents. For example, if the cheese course is the appetizer, then you will want to purchase 1-2 oz. of cheese per person. For the main meal, 3-5 oz. of cheese per person. For the final course, only 1-2 oz. are needed.
There are hundreds of different ways to make a cheese plate. There are no rules that are in stone, but the most important thing is to select cheeses you like and that compliment each other. You can also use other foods to support the flavors in the cheeses, such as pears or apples for an aged cheddar or blue, simple crackers or a rustic bread for soft cheeses, and even chutneys or other preserves. Wine or beer should also be selected to compliment the cheese, not overpower them.
You need to purchase your cheese shortly before serving. Ideally the day before or the day of the tasting. The best place to purchase cheese is from the cheese maker themselves. This gives you the opportunity to learn about each cheese and to learn more about the farm where they were produced. Tell the cheese maker that you are planning a cheese tasting. Often the cheese maker is well versed in offering a cheese flight and you will learn the valuable information needed to present the selection of cheeses to your dinner guests. If they do not have a full compliment of cheeses, they often know other cheese makers and can make recommendations to complete the cheese course. Take as much supporting literature that you can get.
If you are not close to a cheese maker, then the best cheese house or supermarket with a good cheese counter is the best place to go. Only buy cheeses that you taste yourself. Every batch is different and cheeses that were great when you bought them 2-weeks ago may be past their prime when you buy them this time. If the person behind the counter is reluctant to sample the cheese, then do not buy from them. You can also order cheeses from major cheese houses like Artisinal or Murrays in NYC.
An hour before the tasting, take the plate out of the refrigerator. Cheese is at its best when closest to room temperature. This is especially true if you are offering soft or bloomy rind cheeses. Offer the cheeses from the mildest flavors to the strongest flavors. Offer discussions on the taste profiles. Try to choose cheeses from a batch in the winter when animals are on winter feed and summer when they have been to pasture for a few months. See if the guests can taste the difference. You can then tell them all you know about terrior…
Most important, relax, enjoy the cheeses and start to plan for the next cheese tasting!