Five Easy Pieces - Choice Cheese for the Holidays
By Lassa Skinner
Cheese is the quintessential party food – ready-to-serve, crowd-pleasing, good-looking, an affordable. Those are reasons enough to serve this dairy wonder, but there's also the entertainment factor. Specialty cheeses–especially artisanal and venerable old-world varieties–tell a story and invite an experience. You just don't get that with a bowl of chips and salsa.
For an easy yet noteworthy holiday cheese plate, consider going classic with a touch of indulgence. Don't stress about whether the cheeses pair with everything else you're serving–not when the holidays call for such an abundance of food & drink. Think contrasts in texture, and choose for taste, comfort, and an element of surprise. You can put any number of varieties on a cheese plate, though as with flower arrangements, odd numbers seem to work best. The five cheeses featured here are chosen for their seasonability, historical tradition, simple delectability, and stylistic diversity. You local cheese shop will likely stock them or be able to suggest substitutes.
Colston Bassett Stilton
In a rural town in Nottinghamshire, Colston Bassett & District Dairy Ltd. makes this glorious blue cheese, with milk from farms that founded the dairy as a cooperative in 1913. Historically, Stilton was first sold at the Bell Inn in Stilton, a waypoint for travelers. Today, in order for a cheese to be called farmhouse Stilton (which is protected by a certification trademark), it must be made within three adjacent counties and under specific guidelines. Made from pasteurized cow’s milk and produced in 16-pound wheels inoculated with Penicillium roqueforti, which creates the blue veining and flavor, Colston Bassett Blue Stilton is hand-ladled and aged for four months. This is the classic Christmas cheese.
With a consistency like velvety butter, this triple-crème is made by enriching the pasteurized cow’s milk with cream. The holidays aren’t about counting calories (this cheese is about 75 percent butterfat); they’re about festivity, and Brillat-Savarin is the ultimate crowd-pleaser. Named for 18th century gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, this luscious wheel was created by French cheesemaker Henri Androuët. It has a gorgeous white rind that is entirely edible, though it is distinctly different from its soft, spreadable inside.
Pecorino di Moliterno
This unpasteurized sheep's milk cheese comes with or without the truffle, but for the holidays, the decadent infusion of the noble mushroom is absolutely the point. When semi-aged, the wheel is injected with "veins" of truffle-laden paste. The result is rich, piquant, and earthy, begging to meet a robust red wine.
The term "farmstead" means the animals that produce the milk are from the same farm on which the cheese is made. Fiscalini has been raising cows and producing milk since 1914, and its 1,500-head herd of Holsteins provides the raw milk behind this cheese. Sealed with lard, wrapped in cheesecloth, and aged for eighteen months, this sixty-pound wheel tastes earthy and buttery, evoking the land and the cows that produce it.
It takes up to 168 gallons of milk to make one wheel of Comté, an incredibly satisfying cheese and a welcome addition to any cheese plate. Small dairy farms provide the raw milk from their Montbéliarde cows to the local cheese dairy, called a fruitière. Each fruitière is cooperatively owned by the contributing dairy farmers. The milk is heated in copper vats and taken through the cheesemaking process to create a wheel that is aged on wooden boards, washed with a salt brine and turned over for a period of four to twenty-four months. Once aged, the wheel will weigh 75 to 85 pounds. Because Comté is made every day of the year, its flavor profile ranges from cream, butter, and caramel to hazelnuts, chocolate, and a variety of spices. Summer wheels have a bright yellow paste, while winter wheels tend to produce a creamier colored paste.
Franche-Comté and the Rhone-Alps