Anatomy of a Cheese Plate

By Meghan Gieber / Photography By Chris Chowaniec | January 25, 2016
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There’s something romantic about the experience of discovering and eating cheese. Maybe it’s the creamy bites that are dense with nutrition and melt in the mouth or the bewilderment that three basic ingredients (milk, salt and coagulant) can whip up such an infinite number of varieties. Maybe it’s the reminder that cheese often accompanies indulgent occasions or even how harmoniously it pairs with wine.

Whatever the reason, cheese is a crowd pleaser and cheese plates have become a social staple, served any time from breakfast to dessert. But like pairing a fine wine, structuring the right plate comes with etiquette. So we turned to Liz Thorpe—cheese expert and consultant, and author of upcoming The Book of Cheese (Flatiron Books, fall 2016)—to learn more about Northern California producers, wine pairings and how to assemble a rock star cheese platter.

Before Cheese Came Goats and Sheep

Between temperature swings and limited accessible land, the Northern California landscape is well suited for goats and sheep. They adapt to seasonal weather, take up less space than cows and are not as resource-intensive to maintain. According to Liz, raising animals in a nutrient-rich environment among rolling green hills and next to the sea enhances the rich flavor profiles of cheeses. Also, our local farmers are deeply connected to their land and animals, and to how the cheese reflects their individual history.

The result: Here in Silicon Valley we are surrounded by local cheese that is full of integrity and made with love.

Meet the Makers

Pennyroyal Farm in Boonville produces blended-milk cheese from both sheep and goats that are raised on the family farm. Each cheese changes throughout the season depending on how much the animals are producing at the time. The cheeses are sold at various ages—a young gouda might resemble caramel, but as it ages tastes more like a bandaged cheddar. Boont Corners, aged between two months and 180 days, is a winning selection here. Aged cheese is good paired with a wine that’s red fruit concentrated.

The Barinaga family has been sheep-herding in the United States for over a century. Barinaga Ranch in Marshall is overseen by Marcia Barinaga and husband Corey Goodman. The couple is fulfilling their dreams of raising sheep in a sustainable manner and continuing ancient sheep-herding and cheesemaking traditions. Sheep milk is much higher in fat and protein than goat or cow, so the cheeses tend to be better equipped to absorb the effects of tannin—making it a red wine versatile cheese. Try pairing their most popular cheeses, Baserri and Txiki, with a fruit-forward, high-alcohol red wine.

Central Coast Creamery in Paso Robles is a relatively new producer on the scene that can be found in bigger supermarkets such as Whole Foods. They are known for crafting unusual styles, by mixing milks and using different manufacturing processes that result in innovative flavors. They offer Goat Gouda, Goat Cheddar, other blends and the Seascape—a true semi-soft American original. Pair this cheese with lighter red wines.

Toluma Farms in Petaluma produces Tomales Farmstead Creamery cheeses. The farm is Organic Certified, Animal Welfare Approved and Certified Humane. By protecting the land and animals, the cheeses are good, clean and fair. You’ll find both soft and hard cheeses and might fall in love with the soft ripened goat cheese called Kenne or the aged goat and sheep mix called Atika. Pair with sparkling wines that cut through creaminess of the cheese.

With a love for cheese inherited from over 100 years of passionate farmers in the family, couple Bob and Dean Giacomini purchased a dairy farm in 1959 to sell milk to a local creamery. Bob had a dream to make cheese, and after having four daughters he had the help to make his dream come true. In 2000, Point Reyes Farmstead introduced its cheeses to the market. Bay Blue, the newest addition to the product line, has a natural rind, that’s sharp in flavor and crumbles to the touch. It’s a more complex version of a foil-wrapped blue cheese that’s a great option for off-dry and sweeter white wines.

More Cheese, Please

Curating a dynamic cheese plate is simple. Liz recommends limiting your selection to between three and five cheeses so as not to overwhelm the palate. Among those cheeses, choose a variety of milk styles, textures and flavors to give the plate range. Most cheeses belong to one of four categories: aged, soft, firm or blue. Pick one from each group. Set out a butter knife for soft cheeses, a paring knife for firm cheeses and a cheese plane for aged ones. Label each with a few descriptive adjectives that highlight the flavors. Cheeses should be room temperature when served. Leave them out for at least one hour to bring out the complexities of each. If the cheese plate is one of many appetizers and dishes, plan on buying three to four ounces per person.

To give your cheese more chances to shine, incorporate garnishes and spreads that allow guests to get creative with flavor concoctions. Some of the Edible Silicon Valley team favorites are Raincoast Crisps, Marcona Almonds, Castelvetrano Olives, Dalmatia Fig Spread, Mariani dried apricots and fresh Acme or Manresa Bread baguette.

A few Edible Silicon Valley cheese picks

Redwood Hill Farm is located in Sonoma County among the picturesque redwood trees of the Northern California Coast. Goat milk yogurt, kefir and a variety of artisan cheeses are crafted in their solar-powered creamery. Redwood Hill was the first goat dairy in the United States to become Certified Humane in 2005.

Located in Pescadero, Harley Farms is a restored 1910 dairy farm that has been awarded for integrity of its water use, diversification and good citizenry. They have received over 30 national ribbons from the American Cheese Society, and two world medals. For a higher protein cheese, try the Fromage Blanc or drizzle honey on fresh Ricotta.

Hayward-based Kite Hill has introduced the new gold-standard in plant-based cheese. Using time-honored cheesemaking techniques, Kite Hill makes almond-milk-based delicacies that are versatile, tasty, creamy and taste just like the real thing—even the Cream Cheese. They source almonds from the San Joaquin Valley and cultures and enzymes are grown on vegetable-based mediums for those sensitive to dairy.

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