How to throw a wine and cheese party
For many years my family has thrown a holiday wine and cheese party. In recent years, we have added a new feature - chocolate. We now call it our wine, cheese and chocolate party. It is the perfect trifecta. It is a fun and easy party to throw, mostly because there is very little to no cooking involved. My husband and I have as much fun shopping for the wine, cheese and chocolate as we do at the actual party.
Here is what you need to know to throw your own wine, cheese and chocolate party:
Small or large groups
Wine, cheese and chocolate work very well for a small group or a big bash. For our holiday party we typically serve about 100 people.
There are so many great cheeses in the world that it can be a bit daunting to pick out. A lot of specialty cheese shops will let you taste their cheeses before buying. Costco also carries some awesome cheese, albeit in very large quantities. But Costco's prices are so darn good, you can figure out what to do with any leftovers. Or cut Costco's large cheese chunks in half and save part of the cheese for another use.
Cheese I like to buy from Costco
- Delice de Bougogne
- Kerrygold Dubliner cheddar
- Parmigiano reggiano stravecchio
- Goat cheese
- Smoked gouda
- Point Reyes blue cheese
- Castello havarti
- St. Andre triple cream
My favorite specialty cheese shops
- Vin Goat in Corona del Mar, California
- Sapphire Pantry in Laguna, California
- The Cheese Store of Silverlake, in Los Angeles
- The Cheese Store of Beverly Hills, California
- Cowgirl Creamery in San Francisco, California
- Vivant Fine Cheese in Paso Robles, California
- Beecher's Handmade Cheese, Pike's Peak, Seattle
- Murray's Cheese Shop in NYC
- Fairway Market in NYC
How to build a cheese plate
When I am serving a large number of cheeses I make multiple platters and come up with a theme for each platter, such as blue cheeses, Spanish cheeses, triple cream cheeses, etc... But if I am building a single platter of cheese I look for variety to serve on one platter.
Type of milk: I like to serve a mixture of cow, buffalo, goat and sheep cheese. In general, cow cheese is usually milder. Goat and sheep cheese are often stinkier (read very tasty) and for me, more nuanced.
Region: I look for cheeses from different parts of the world. It is amazing how many countries produce great cheese.
Style: I try to vary the style of cheese. Is it made from raw milk? Is is a washed rind cheese? Is it a double or triple cream cheese? Is it a fresh or aged cheese? Is the rind edible? Is it wrapped in beautiful leaves or coated in herbs?
Density: I like to mix up the cheese density offering some hard, some semi-hard, some semi-soft and some soft cheeses.
History: Many cheeses have amazing histories. Some cheese has been made for hundreds of years, while other cheeses are the result of new artisanal efforts. I like to serve a mix of old world and new age cheeses.
Share your cheese's story: When I make a cheese platter I like to write up a little card that tells you about the cheese. I describe the significant history; style of cheese; region or country it comes from; what foods go with it and what wines or beers to pair with it.
Things to serve with cheese
You can go two ways with food accompaniments for most cheese: sweet or savory.
Cheese, especially salty cheese, likes a little something sweet.
Honey is almost always good with cheese. You can serve a little pot of honey on your cheese platter, drizzle honey over your cheese or serve your cheese with a big slice of honeycomb.
Jams and preserves complement cheese well. When in doubt try strawberry jam. Other fruit preserves, marmalades and chutneys can really enhance cheese. Spanish membrillo, a thick fruit paste made from quince is also a good choice, particularly when you are serving with Spanish cheese. My Cranberry and dried cherry sauce is an excellent accompaniment to cheese.
Glazed nuts - Sugared walnuts or pecans go fabulously with some cheese. Make the same salt and pepper candied walnuts I use in my Chicken, berry, date & candied walnut salad for your cheese platters.
Chocolate - Interestingly, some cheeses, like an aged gouda, actually go well with dark chocolate and make for a fun pairing.
Charcuterie complements cheese well. You can serve sausage, chorizo, salami, prosciutto, Spanish Serrano or Iberico ham or pate on your cheese plate. Costco can be another great source for high quality, well-priced charcuterie.
Olives - An assortment of olives provides a little salty goodness to accompany your cheese.
Pickles - Pickles can go very well with some cheese. You can use French cornichons, or just any about kind of pickle you choose.
Roasted vegetables - I like to roast some red & yellow peppers or Slow-roasted tomatoes to serve with cheese.
Mustard - Some cheeses do really well with mustard. You can use an assortment of mustards. I personally like Pommery mustard, a French whole-grain mustard with an interesting history.
Fresh and dried fruit and toasted nuts
Fresh and dried fruit and toasted nuts work with both sweet or savory pairings for many cheeses.
Cheese platter ideas
Here are three recipes to help you build your own cheese platters:
How much cheese to buy
The thing about cheese is you don't need much. Cheese is very rich and it only takes a bit to satisfy. When making a single platter I look for small pieces of cheese. The exact amount depends on the cheese, how many people I am serving, how many cheeses I am serving, and whether the platter is meant to be a meal or an appetizer. In general, for a single platter I will buy between 1/8th and 1/4 pound of each cheese and aim for about 2 - 3 ounces of cheese per person.
If I am serving 100 people, I buy a total of about 12 - 14 pounds of cheese, with each piece between 1/2 and 3/4's pound. Occasionally I will have a full wheel of a focal cheese that will weigh multiple pounds. A wheel of Brillat Savarin, Kerrygold's 5-pound wheel of Dubliner, or if you are lucky a wheel of Torta de la Serena all make great focal cheeses.
What to serve the cheese on
I like to use remnant pieces of granite and marble. Many stone stores and installers will sell you leftover pieces for a few dollars. I put felt pads on the back of the stone to protect the furniture I set them on.
In general, the wines that are great with cheese are not the wines most Americans drink. Buttery chardonnay and tannin-rich cabernet sauvignon fight the flavors in most cheeses. Champagne and other sparkling wines pair well with many cheeses because they act as a palate cleanser. Minerally and slightly sweet whites often make nice accompaniments to cheese. Medium-bodied and slightly fruity reds go well with many cheeses. Port, sherry and various dessert wines often pair well with cheeses.
Look for the unrecognizable
When I plan a wine and cheese party I look for unusual wine or small-batch wines that people don't readily recognize. Why? I want people to be guided by their taste and not their established preferences. The fun of a wine and cheese party is trying a sip or two of a variety of wines with a variety of cheeses to determine what really works for you.
Consider beer & ale
Beer makes a great pairing with many cheeses, particularly if it is a savory cheese like Red Dragon that is filled with mustard seeds. Many Swiss, German and Dutch cheeses pair well with ale.
Recently, my husband and I have added a chocolate tasting to our wine and cheese parties. We buy a variety of artisanal chocolates along with my husband's favorite and very well-priced Pound-Plus bars from Trader Joe's. We break each chocolate bar up into small pieces and let people sample a variety. We offer a wide variety including: lavender chocolate, chili-spiked chocolate, bacon chocolate and of course my personal favorite, salted chocolate.
A little extra
Over the years I have found some of our guests appreciate a little extra sustenance beyond just wine, cheese and chocolate. Particularly if they have been avid wine-tasters. So many years ago I began making up a huge triple batch of my French lentil and garlic sausage soup, made with De Puy lentils. This filling soup/stew is always a big hit and complements the wine & cheese well.
What is your favorite wine and cheese pairing?