Ten years ago, I took my first trip to Sonoma, California and toured the magnificent wine country. Still a starving college student at the time, the budget was small but the passion about wine was big—the new millennium ushered in a whole new generation of wine snobs.
Renting a car, friends and I drove around from winery to winery—with a designated driver of course—learning everything we could about the all- mighty grape in tasting rooms across Napa and Sonoma. Some of the wineries, like Chateau St. John and Viansa, had small shops attached where one could pick up a bottle of wine, cheese and bread and sit out overlooking the lush vineyards.
Aside from taking home some great wine, a new passion was born…the art of pairing. It was highlighted in all the wineries, restaurants and bistros. Oneophiles (lovers of wine) and Gastronomes (lovers of food) were coming together at an alarming rate trying to match merlot with meat, chardonnay with popcorn (Try it sometime! So buttery without the added fat!) Naturally, wine and cheese were obsessed over because the two just go hand-in-hand. The special complexities in flavors that abound when brought together are awe-inspiring.
Vivienne Marquis and Patricia Haskell said in The Cheese Book: A definitive guide to the cheeses of the world, that cheese has been described as milk’s leap to immortality—and as the food that most resembles wine. For cheese, like wine is a preserve, and it bears the same relation to milk as wine bears to grapes.
Today, I am still as passionate about wine as I was then, but am also just as passionate about cheese. The two complement each other like an old married couple. The cheese platter, a simple yet well appreciated plate, is a quintessential appetizer for any party whether wine is served or not…I mean…Who doesn’t love a good piece of cheese?
When making the perfect cheese platter, airing on the side of simplicity is best. Keep the cheese maximum to four varieties, and compliment the platter with things like fruits and nuts. Think of the bridal rhyme when picking cheese only you want, something hard, something soft, something mild and something blue, (or stinky). A good cheese platter is really all the appetizer you will need if done right. Cheese has character, it’s bold and like wine, each one brings a special flavor.
My favorite wines are Pinot Noir and Syrah, the spicier the better, like my men. These two wines pair nicely with the cheeses selected below.
The Perfect Cheese Platter:
Amadeus: Named after Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, (this is merely useless knowledge that will impress your guests). A cow’s milk cheese, mild with an aromatic flavor.
Smoked Provolone: The stinky cheese, made even more delicious by giving it that perfect smoky flavor that blends well with the earthy tones in wine. The smell alone of this cheese will make your mouth water. (You can substitute a blue-veined cheese like gorgonzola or blue cheese)
Aged Mahon: Hard, cow’s milk cheese, buttery and sharp. I can eat this cheese paired or by itself. It can be served plain, or sprinkled with a little olive oil and black pepper. Everyone will be asking about this cheese. So versatile!
Goat Cheese Brie: This will even please the brie-haters (my husband is one, and I married him anyway!) This is a soft cheese, made from goat’s milk. This version is very creamy and milder than its cow’s milk cousin.
Grapes: They look so pretty on a cheese platter.
Crackers: A good palette cleanser. My favorite is 34° Crispbread. A thin cracker that comes in great flavors that pair well like whole grain, cracked pepper and sesame. www.34-degrees.com.
Fig Preserves: I love figs with cheese and this preserve pairs deliciously with the goat cheese.
Pecans: A full bodied nut, that is buttery and flavorful. Go crazy with the spiced pecan recipe below…always a crowd pleaser.
Great places to find good cheese:
If you aren’t fortunate enough to have a Murray’s Cheese Shop, or other great artisan shop dedicated to the finery of fermented milk, these places have a great selection and all of the cheeses listed above:
Italian Specialty Shops
Local Farm Markets
1 egg white, lightly beaten
1 tablespoon water
3 cups pecan halves
½ cup white sugar
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground cloves
½ teaspoon nutmeg
1. Preheat oven to 350&mdeg; F. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil.
2. In a small bowl beat the egg white with the water. Stir in pecans, mixing until well moistened.
3. In a small bowl, mix together sugar, salt, cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg. Sprinkle over the moistened nuts.
Spread nuts on prepared pan.
4. Bake in preheated over for 30 minutes, stirring once or twice. Be careful not to overcook and burn the nuts.