How to Build a Minimalist Cheese Board
I am of two minds about the current cheese board trend. All over magazines and Instagram feeds are overhead shots of cheese boards that look as if the maker were attempting to create an impressionistic painting with food. No more the board of three to five large hunks of cheese with a few small piles of the usual accompaniments like dried fruit or nuts, maybe some olives. Gone are the days of a platter of simple slices or cubes. Nope, these boards overflow with cheeses, each broken down into different shapes, arranged artfully and every open space on the board filled with everything from cured meats to bowls of schmears to fresh fruits and vegetables, to pickles of every ilk, and thin slices of artisanal breads woven through the abundance.
And on the one hand, as someone who does an okay job of creating a board like this, and who is not indifferent to the oohs and ahhs that it elicits, I do participate in the perpetuation of the trend and document my own efforts to share with my social media followers. On the other hand, I recognize that it takes something that used to be the simplest idea for entertaining and shoots it to a place where people feel insane pressure. I wasn’t even aware of how much it had infiltrated the mainstream until I went to a friend’s house where there were four lovely perfectly ripe cheeses on a board next to a basket of crackers and the first thing she did was apologize for it being so basic. She may or may not have used air quotes when she said basic.
I was staring down at conservatively $50 worth of beautiful cheeses, aged and at the peak of cheese goodness, and some appropriate carbs as a vehicle to deliver them to my face, and my hostess was sheepish because she felt like she hadn’t done enough. That sort of madness must stop.
I started to think about the cheese boards of my youth, when my parents and their friends had dinner parties and cocktail parties and Sunday afternoon gatherings and something sparked. Because at those parties? There was ONE CHEESE. It might be a vat of fondue, or a baking dish full of something hot and bubbly. It might be an epic cheese ball or log. My mom was famous for her stuffed Edam, a whole red-wax-coated cannonball of cheese that she hollowed into a shell, and then made a cheese spread with the innards and stuffed it back in the shell for serving. Sometimes someone had been to Wisconsin and brought back a giant brick of aged cheddar. Or someone would serve a whole wheel of brie. No matter what the event, no matter what else was on offer, it was 95 percent of the time graced by a singular cheese experience. Gloriously so.
So, I am advocating a return to this style of cheese service. Don’t make yourself crazy trying to find the perfect set of cheeses and the dominos that then fall…source one amazing cheese and buy a staggeringly enormous piece of it. A spectacular 2-pound wedge of Parmigiano Reggiano. A whole wheel of Delice de Bourgogne. A brick of eleven-year old cheddar or chunk of five-year old gouda. A huge stinky round of blue. Whatever your favorite cheese might be? Get that. At scale.
Beyond that you need only four things. Something carb-y to become an edible plate, which could be crackers or bread. Something schmeary to stick the cheese to the carb, I recommend unsalted butter, a trick the French have been hiding from us for years, which makes cheese taste cheesier, but Dijon or whole grain mustard are also great, as is an unusual unsweetened nut butter like walnut or pistachio. Something salty and briny to balance it, like olives or caper berries or cornichons or other pickles. And something sweet like a fig jam or piece of honeycomb or slab of quince paste or dried fruit like apricots or cherries. Not ALL of these. One of each.
That. Is. All.
You do not need fourteen varieties of dried fruits and nuts. You do not need six kinds of crackers and three types of bread. I recommend a second carb only if you have a gluten-free guest and you haven’t found a GF cracker that you love personally yet.
The bonus? There is never a bottleneck at the cheese board when there is only one cheese. No one is trying to juggle a glass of wine while deciphering the eleventy zillion tiny items on a giant patter. I cut up or break off shards of the first couple of inches of the cheese and then just leave it with a relevant utensil.
At my house? The cheese stands alone.