If you follow my Instagram feed you have probably noticed my cheese addiction! I came by this quite naturally as my family always set out cheese plates before dinner (and this was in the 1980s when such things were definitely NOT common place in rural Georgia!) Of course, back then it was exotic to serve Maytag blue cheese with guava jam and saltine crackers. Honestly, it’s only in the last 15 years that more truly artisanal cheeses have become commonly available in mid-size American towns (not everywhere has New York City caliber cheese shops.) And it is only in the past five years that there seems to be a significant rise in small creameries in the southeastern United States that are inspired by classic European cheese-makers.
So I consider myself lucky to know Eric Casella and Nora Granger, proprietors of Counter Cheese Caves, a Charleston, South Carolina based business focusing largely on these incredible Southern creameries. Eric and Nora worked in some of the top cheese shops in New York City before moving to Charleston a few years ago. Now they sell to many of the best restaurants in the city and just started their online shop that can ship around the country! (The deadline for ordering for Christmas shipping is Wednesday, December 19, at 9 a.m.)
Consequently, this seems a perfect time to ask their advice on cheese boards for the holidays! I cannot imagine a festive occasion without this decadent start so let’s dig into their pro tips!
P.S. Charleston area residents: you can order online by midnight on Thursdays for weekend pickup of Counter Cheese Caves at Edmund’s Oast Exchange, the wine shop I manage. Just go to the “Cheese Share” page of Counter Cheese Caves website.
On to the tips…
What is your general advice regarding cheese boards for the holidays?
Don't overthink it. Almost everyone is always happy to see cheese in whatever manner it's presented. It shouldn't be a source of stress, and no one will ever balk at your choices or presentation.
As always, having a mix of styles, milk types, and textures is always appreciated. Alpine styles (think Gruyere) always conjure holiday feelings for us since they characteristically match the intensity and flavors of most holiday foods - roasty, brothy, fruity, etc. If you can get your hands on one of the many spruce wrapped soft ripened cheeses around this time of year, those are great centerpieces and only really available around holidays.
Get more than you think you need. There is nothing worse than not having enough cheese. Our general rule is at least one ounce per person of each cheese you're serving. A large hunk of an English style cheddar or alpine style that can sit out all day to be continuously grazed on is always nice too.
If you are having a large party should you cut the cheeses into smaller, bite-size pieces? Or is that sacrilegious?
Maybe a bit of both! Large parties mean large pieces of cheese, which look great amidst crackers, veggies, fruit, and nuts; but they are frequently subject to ugly hack jobs. We like to portion some, while leaving a decent sized chunk whole.
Are there special cheeses that are released this time of the year?
Yes! The aforementioned spruce bark wrapped cheeses are only made with the milk of hay-fed cows. When cows switch from grazing on grass to hay (in the winter), their milk is even more packed with nutrients (hay=grass without the water weight).
Spruce bark wrapped cheeses are a traditional alpine cheesemaking practice, most notably showcased in Vacherin Mont d'Or (from France) but replicated by a few fantastic American producers. Uplands Cheese Rush Creek Reserve and Jasper Hill Winnimere are the most well known, but our friends at Sequatchie Cove Creamery in Tennessee have a favorite called Ebenezer.
What is your general advice regarding beverage pairing with cheese? Rumor has it that some folks say that bubbles -- whether beer or sparkling wine -- really up the pairing game? But can still wines work as well?
Bubbles do some great palate scrubbing work, which is a definite plus when you are working with the heft of butterfat on the palate. Beer's grain background also works exceptionally well with cheese (i.e. crackers and bread), but wine is fantastic for really dialing in complementary and contrasting flavors. Generally staying clear of anything very tannic is the way to go, as tannins and cream are not the best of buds. Chenin Blanc and other mineral-driven whites (perhaps with some funkiness) are some of our favorites.
What cheeses will y'all be enjoying at home this holiday season?
Definitely excited for Sequatchie's Ebenezer. Prodigal Farm Spring Fever just came back into season, which is based on an amazing 8th century recipe and provides much needed acidity. We are also going to be shopping for some old European favorites that we never get to eat at our friend's shop, Foster Sundry, in New York, while we’re home for the holiday.