Sunday, February 17, 2013

In Search of The Perfect Cheese Plate

In the Twin Cities we are surrounded by fantastic cheese options. We have shops and farmers markets that offer every imaginable type of local, imported, grass-fed, raw, tangy, aged, fresh, dank, or milky. We can find caved and bleued; barreled or basketed; cowed, sheeped, and goated. In between State Fairs we can pilfer a paper-lined hamper of fried curds from a dozen decent bar menus across town. The cheese cases at my grocery are filled with my heart's desires, and what they don't carry I can easily find within a ten-mile range. We are spoiled and lucky.

I've been on a lifelong quest to satisfy my lactic gluttony. The goal is to find the perfect cheese plate, or my personal Holy Fromage Grail. For me perfection includes three or five cheeses (Yes, it must be an odd number. I'm weird like that.) of specific variety: aged, soft rind, blue, firm, and at least one sheep or goat. The plate should be crowned with sweet, savory, tart, and nutty accompaniments that emphasize the flavors of the cheeses: fruit (dried, fresh, preserved, chutney), honey or other syrups, caramelized onions, pickled vegetables and olives or tampenade, nuts, as well as bread, toasts, and crackers.

Perfection has teased me countless times and in some of the most unusual places. A wine bar at a local mall used to serve a gorgeous plate, complete with homey accouterments and a wide selection of regional cheeses on the menu. (Sadly my last visit there during the holidays had the bartender delivering a dish of cold cheeses dotted by one wilted strawberry, a tablespoon of preserves the fruit of which neither the bartender nor I could identify, and an odd pile, perhaps 1/3 cup, of coarse salt that spilled off the side of the plate like sand in an hour glass.)

Bewiched Deli has a happy hour cheese special that always makes me giddy. But I can never choose just the cheese because their charcuterie is beyond, so I ask for the combo. The platter comes out heavy with stunning meats, cheeses, and flawlessly matched accompaniments. Recently I revisited the happy hour cheese plate at The Red Stag. I've ordered both the petite happy hour version as well as the full version, and both are generous and oozing (obligatory cheese pun) with variety, flavor, color, and textures. And those aforementioned fried curds on decent bar menus? Red Stag has those too.

With all the Cheddars and chรจvre and triple cremes out there, some of the best cheese plates are the ones we create for ourselves. Last week was a friend's annual wine tasting party and the afternoon prior we set out to find exactly the right cheeses to serve. In years past we've done Surdyk's (Seriously, does it get better? Come hungry, grab a number, and have a cheese expert feed you the most amazing bites.), but this year we headed to the Cheese Shop on Grand Avenue in St. Paul and came home with some unique choices, including Pont L'eveque a soft rind from Normandy that has me dreaming about its flavors of cows and straw and green pastures.

I splurged on a treat for T and me, and brought home an old friend, Mostarda Mantovana di Pere (pear mostarda) and a new cheese to pair with it. I love pear mostarda with an aged and crystally Parm-Reg, but wanted something different. The ghee-rubbed Remeker from the Netherlands is a nice choice. Achieving the occasional One Perfect Bite keeps me searching for the Holy Fromage Grail.

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