That Cheese Platter, Tho!

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Prairie Breeze from Milton Creamery, Beemster XO Gouda, Beer-washed Vallee from Baetje Farms, Blue Hills Bleu from Wisconsin Sheep Dairy Cooperative

I will at some point write a proper guide to creating cheese platters, but for now, I still feel like too much of a novice. Every time I think I’m getting pretty good at this, I log onto Instagram and am reminded of how far I have yet to go compared to some of the most extraordinary cheesemongers out there. They’re making such gorgeous stuff! But at a level a few steps below those masters, I think making a very attractive platter filled with delicious items and thoughtful pairings isn’t terribly difficult—it just requires some thought and patience and practice. And the beauty of being a novice is that I learn something new each time I make another platter. I’m constantly experimenting, which sometimes means flubbing up and always means that when I finish, I have ideas for how to do it better next time. I critique myself and say, “well, that’s ok but that part isn’t ideal–maybe try it this other way next time.” And I do learn a lot just from looking at the brilliant stuff others are doing on Instagram. Sorry / not sorry for stealing your ideas, fellow mongers! Hey, you can steal mine any time. Whether you’re a monger or just someone who wants to make a platter at home, I’m happy to share my thoughts or answer questions. I’m always eager to share what I’ve learned or am learning.

In the photo above, I tried to have some contrasting shapes, geometrically–some blocky areas in contrast to the big eye-catching curves of the cheddar and gouda. One thing I’ve found is that no matter how much energy I put into planning and mapping out how it will look, once my hands are in the thing and the reality of physical limitations of space and mass and crumbly-ass cheese begin pushing me around, I always end up improvising as I go. Sometimes the physical act of constructing it really leads the way more than my abstract planning. It feels like a puzzle with multiple solutions, but some solutions are more satisfactory than others.

One major consideration is always the balance of aesthetics vs. the practicality of placing the thing in front of people who want to actually eat it. The most beautiful platter for a photo might turn out to be rather poorly designed when it comes to actual hungry party guests wanting to nibble. In the photo above, for example, there are a few practical problems. For one thing, the wedges of blue and Vallee are faced toward the center because, frankly, I thought it looked prettier that way. But it would be easier for guests to enjoy if the wedges faced outward. Further, there’s really not much room to work with for a guest trying to cut out a wedge of Vallee, Green Hill, or Blue Hills. It’ll be a bit awkward for them. Yet another problem: after the first guest nabs a few wedges of cheddar, the shape’s effect will be completely lost. It’s not a design that will continue to look pretty for very long after guests start picking at it. I was mindful of all those problems, but chose to push the balance toward aesthetics rather than practicality. There’s a risk in going too far in one direction or the other—it often calls for a compromise.

When we’re considering aesthetics, we’re thinking of the shapes we’re creating, their variety or uniformity. We’re thinking of how it looks from above and from every side. We’re thinking of height, fullness, and color—a bit like a painter, we’re considering the composition.

At the same time, we’re trying to choose items that pair well together and provide something for everyone. We’re also managing costs to stick within an agreed-upon price-point. It’s an exercise in managing multiple concerns at once.

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Gotta love that ripe Sandy Creek from Goat Lady Dairy. 

I like the look of this small, simple platter. I imagine it’s pretty easy for guests to deal with. The standing wedges of cheese and rolls of salumi are easy for guests to grab with tongs. The nest of beef summer sausage in the back supports the olives, and there are enough layers of sausage slices to continue serving that purpose even after half of them are gone. But note: it’s clearly designed to face only one way. From the back, it’ll look terrible and be awkward for guests to access, which is fine if it’s set on a table against a wall, but less so if it’s on a table in the middle of a room.

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So many goodies! Red Rock from Roelli, Chevre from Noble Springs, Ewephoria, Pecorino Wiscono from Wisconsin Sheep Dairy Cooperative, Blue Paradise from Hook’s, salami from Smoking Goose and Tennshootoe from The Hamery. 

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This double-platter represents, I think, a pretty good balance between practicality and aesthetics. Only the curved line of Pecorino triangles in the middle will suffer much as guests fill their plates. The Ewephoria is crumbled to make for easy grazing that will still look good (and will even allow for further crumbling) as the night goes on. The honey is placed near its best pairing–the blue cheese–while the mustard is near the salami, which makes for a perfect match. I pre-sliced the blue, but that was probably a pretty useless courtesy, as it’s going to stick together and crumble as guests try to get some onto their plates. It would have been just as well to leave it whole and let folks knife in for what they want. The mirrored jars/bowls and curved triangle lines give a sense of tidiness, while other sections are piled in a way that’s less fussy. If it’s too neat and tidy, no one wants to mess it up, so I like to include plenty of suggestion that this is a plate of food, not a work of art—dig in!

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Green Hill from Sweet Grass Dairy, Ewephoria, Smokey Mountain Round from Goat Lady Dairy, Dunbarton Blue from Roelli, Tennshootoe from the Hamery, and Beef Summer Sausage made in house at Porter Road Butcher. 

This small platter will be perfect, I hope, for just a few people. I put a lot of love into this one because it was for my dear friend @edgesnashville, our shop’s knife-sharpener. It’s a pretty platter but will also be super easy for guests to manage. The only trick will be dealing with the lack of room around the Green Hill wheel, which might make it difficult to cut wedges. (Also, I’m glad the customer is my friend and will forgive me because I totally crushed the too-tall Dunbarton wedges when I put the lid on. GAH!)

At some point, as I mentioned, I’ll try to draw up some clearly-defined principles and guidelines for making cheese platters and throw in a few pro tips. For now, I’ll keep honing my skills.

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