Creating the Perfect Local Cheese Plate

Ahhh…the power of cheese.™ Do you remember this ad campaign from the American Dairy Association? My favorite of their series of commercials was the one with the cute little red haired girl who had the invisible friend. That was before I became the cheese geek I am and came to realize how a simple selection of quality cheeses could be a guaranteed hit at any party.

The holiday season is the party season and when you’re looking for non-fuss, quick appetizer, cheese has your back.

Creating a great cheese plate is as simple as 1, 2, 3.

  1. Determine who is going to be eating the cheese. For an adventurous food crowd, your imagination is the only limitation. For a conservative crowd, keep it simple. If you’re unsure, throw in one new or interesting sounding cheese with some more recognizable cheeses.
  2. Determine your budget. As a person who could break anyone’s bank account by going on a cheese shopping spree, it’s a good idea to decide how much you want to spend before you go shopping.
  3. Determine how much time or effort you want to devote. One stop shops are great when your time is at a premium, but if you have extra time, you’ll be able to get a greater selection of local cheeses by visiting a couple different places.

Photo Credit(s): Kris McDowellPhoto Credit(s): Kris McDowellI like concrete examples so let’s assume that you have accepted a last minute invitation to a gathering later this week with a mix of people and you’d like to spend about $20. If you’re like most people those weeknight gatherings are the ones that leave you scrambling the most so an easy route to a terrific appetizer is what’s called for.

There are a variety of places that you can pick up local cheese, and possibly some nice crackers, baguette or fruit spread to accompany the cheese. Lund’s and Byerly’s are scattered throughout the metro, Surdyk’s in Minneapolis, France 44 in Edina, and Golden Fig and St. Paul Cheese Shop, both on Grand Ave in St. Paul all are good resources. If you have a bit more time or advance planning, the St. Paul Farmers Market runs all winter, albeit only on Saturdays from 9 am – 1 pm, but there you can speak to and buy from two local cheese producers, Love Tree Farm and Shepherd’s Way Farms. Once our frozen tundra retreats and the market is back in full swing, expect to see the return of Eichten’s Hidden Acres as well.

Local is broad term, which I extend beyond our borders to encompass producers in Wisconsin and Iowa, but if you’re concerned about the miles your food has traveled, you may want to tighten it up. Along that same vein is making a decision about the size of the cheese making company you want to use your food dollars to support.

Just a small slice of the cheese selection at the Golden FigJust a small slice of the cheese selection at the Golden FigAs with any product, being able to put a face and a voice to cheese enhances the experience. Proud of their product and happy to talk about it, our local cheese makers are your best resource for how information on how it was created and best to enjoy it. The next best thing is finding a shop that carries local cheese, intimately knows their suppliers and can speak to the products they carry. Being able to try the product before you buy it is just the cherry on top of the whole experience.

Having chosen where to buy your cheese from, your mission is to pick out three or four cheeses that fall into the following categories: soft (i.e. Brie, soft goat, triple cream), blue, plain (i.e. cheddar, gouda, colby) and flavored (i.e. horseradish-chive, cranberry, tomato basil cheddar). You can also mix it up by choosing cheeses made from a variety of sources (cow, goat, sheep). Based on the selection found at the Eagan Byerly’s store, suggestions for a well rounded, four cheese appetizer plate are as follows.

  • Soft: Crema Kasa (triple cream), Carr Valley
  • Blue: Big Woods Blue, Shepherd’s Way Farms
  • Plain: Fini Cheddar, Faribault Dairy
  • Flavored: Marieke Honey Clover Gouda, Holland’s Family Cheese

Cheese is a rich food and therefore as little as ¼ lb of each cheese will work. Here’s how my selections played out at the cash register:

  • ¼ lb Crema Kasa = $3.75
  • ¼ lb Big Woods Blue = $6.25
  • ¼ lb Fini Cheddar = $4.50
  • ¼ lb Marieke Honey Clover Gouda = $5.00
  • Grand total = $19.50

With the shopping done, you’re 90% there. The only things left to do are to arrange the selected cheeses on a serving platter and make sure they are at the approximate correct temperature. The softer cheeses tend to benefit from some time spend at room temperature while some hard cheese may take on an oily or glazed appearance if left out too long in advance. If you’re not sure, just ask when you purchase the cheese. Any knowledgeable cheese vendor should be happy to instruct you.

To add a little extra visual interest to your plate, look in your pantry for some dried fruit or nuts to sprinkle around the cheeses and maybe lightly drizzle the plate with honey.

That’s all there is to it. Simple, good, and tasty to be sure!

Kris McDowell is an established writer about tasty things, including cheese and beer. You can read her Beer Musings from Minneapolis-St. Paul on the terrific blog she shares with her husband Mag, and at the site MN Beer. This is her first article for Simple, Good, and Tasty.