From Portugal to the Eastern Mediterranean, cheese is central to the cuisines of Mediterranean countries. However, not everyone in the region eats cheese the same way, or even at the same time of day. Cheese petiscos, pintxos, and tapas are popular in the Iberian Peninsula and eaten before dinner. In France, cheese is served after dinner and before dessert or with fruit to ﬁnish a meal. In Italy, cheese is used in recipes or eaten as a snack or to start a meal as a small appetizer. In Greece, cheese is served as part of Mezze platters or in a side dish or salad with the main meal. But no matter how they eat it, cheese is never far from a Mediterranean table.
“The best pairing is the one that balances ﬂavors in your palate. I use the cheese as the basis of the match. If the cheese is sweet, look for a savory condiment or a drink with some acidity. If the cheese is creamy, serve it with a vegetable or cracker with more structure. Finally, if you like a particular style of cheese, for example sharp cheddar, look for other cheeses with a similar proﬁle. Use your favorite cheese as a gateway to others in the same style, milk, and origin.”
—Carlos Yescas, Director of the Oldways Cheese Coalition.
Stateside cheese boards have been popping up everywhere with a uniquely American feel. Before the pandemic, large cheese boards were created for wedding receptions and other big social events. We are sure they will make a comeback once we are allowed to host gatherings again. In the meantime, cheese stores around the country have been creating small selections for date nights with three to six cheeses and inventive accompaniments. This is a great way to introduce new ﬂavors and also to expand your knowledge about cheese and pairings.
“I ﬁnd that folks tend to be terriﬁed of the DIY cheese plate. Usually, this fear is rooted in 1) what’s “supposed to” go together, and 2) how to portion & display the cheeses. Here’s the truth about pairings: there are no rules. Rules can prove useful, but it’s also fun to break them — don’t worry.”
—Lilith Spencer, 2016 San Francisco Cheesemonger Invitational Champion.
When planning for your cheese board our recommendations are as follows:
Choose at least one cheese that you already know and love. Chances are that others will love it too and you won’t end up with a lot of leftover cheese.
Choose at least one cheese made from a diﬀerent milk type than the majority in your board. If you are serving 2 cow’s milk cheeses, try adding a cheese made with goat or a sheep’s milk.
Choose at least one cheese with a diﬀerent texture than the majority in your board. If you are serving mostly hard aged cheeses, include a soft or a fresh cheese.
“…try to eat your cheese within a week to two weeks, maximum, after purchase. If you bought your cheese with a particular taste in mind, it will most likely have changed somewhat over two weeks’ time, and unless this was an intended eﬀect on an under-ripe Camembert or similar whole, uncut wheel, this is not optimal.”
—Nick Bayne, 2015 NYC Cheesemonger Invitational Champion
Cheeseboards don’t need to be overly complicated, so choosing a theme will ease your selection process. For example, you can decide to try Spanish cheeses for a tapas night! In most stores, you can easily ﬁnd a semi-aged and an aged Manchego, a nice semi soft Mahon, and a soft cow’s cheese like Rey Silo or a blue cheese like Cabrales to complement your selection. To follow your Spanish theme, pair the cheeses with membrillo (quince paste) and olives. For drinks, a chilled Verdejo white wine will bring out the sweet notes of the cheese, or a red Rioja will match the notes of aged Spanish cheeses.
You can do something similar with French and Italian cheeses. Trust your instinct or ask the cheesemonger at your favorite cheese store for recommendations.
Cheeseboards don’t need to be planned days in advance. In fact, many cheese experts put out a selection of the cheese they have already in their fridge, but they make them special by arranging the cheese in a unique way and oﬀering accompaniments that transform cheeses from every day to celebration worthy.
Goat cheese and olives: Fresh goat cheese is commonly known as chèvre in France and it is used for many things from salads to sauces. Our friends at FoodMatch recommend serving goat cheese with olives and ﬁg spread. See their recommendation in the recipe boxes.
In selecting accompaniments, your safest bet is to ﬁnd things that balance ﬂavors or texture. Sweeter cheeses do well with accompaniments with acidity like pickles or sour fruit jams, while very savory cheeses like Feta or Gruyere match better with softer ﬂavors. Feta goes great with watermelon and honey is a great match with Swiss-style cheeses. Fresh fruits go with aged cheeses, while dried fruits like apricots or dates balance the saltiness of blue cheeses.
Herb infused oils are great with pasta ﬁlata cheeses like mozzarella or burrata. These pulled curd cheeses are also great in salads. Therefore, when adding pasta ﬁlata cheeses to a cheese board, choose foods that are normally put in a salad like cherry tomatoes, cucumber slices, crudites or grilled vegetables.
Marinated cheese: Some cheeses like feta and hard ewe’s milk cheese like manchego or pecorino are really delicious when lightly marinated in olive oil and spices and herbs. The oil gets infused with the ﬂavors added and will be delicious to dip crusty bread for a midday snack. Follow the recipe from our friends at the North American Olive Oil Association (in the recipe box) and elevate your favorite cheese.
Finally, don’t limit yourself to bread or crackers. While they are wonderful with many cheeses, they can be very ﬁlling. Try switching crackers for pita, whole wheat wraps, bagel slices, or even a banana and corn chips. The trick is to think about the texture of the cheese and ﬁnd a “cheese holder” that complements. Gooey camembert will be easily spread on apple slices, while hard Parmigiano Reggiano is better in chunks with a small drizzle of Traditional Aceto Balsamico.
Before assembling your traditional cheese plate, remember that cheese should be enjoyed not in great quantities at one sitting, but rather in reasonable portions. That advice is part of the Oldways Cheese Coalition’s mission: we aim to inspire people to embrace the joys of the old ways of eating traditional cheeses in healthy amounts. For a well-balanced cheese plate, be sure to include some of the healthy ingredients described above, such as fresh or dried fruits, whole grain crackers or breads, nuts, and even fresh or grilled vegetables.
If you love traditional cheese and want more information about choosing great cheeses, Oldways has a number of resources to help you:
- Subscribe to The Cheese Plate, Oldways’ Cheese Coalition’s monthly newsletter featuring traditional cheeses and wonderful pairings.
- Download our free e-book, The Cheese Lover’s Guide to Cooking with Traditional Cheeses.
- Travel with Oldways. Oldways Culinarias are also a great place to learn about and experience wonderful traditional cheeses through watching the production and by enjoying them in the countryside where they are made.
- Use our recipe search to look for recipes with traditional cheeses.
Also, be sure to try the recipes included in this week’s Fresh Friday newsletter!
Want biweekly Med Diet information and recipes in your Inbox? Sign up for our Fresh Fridays newsletter by clicking the Subscribe button at the bottom of this page!
Join the Make Every Day Mediterranean Club Facebook group for additional information and support.