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Cheese, Please: Preparing a Cheese Board with Helen Howarth of Fromagio’s

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Clifton Fadiman once said it best: “Cheese [is] milk’s leap toward immortality.”

Whether you consider it an indulgence or an everyday occurrence (hey, we don’t judge!), cheese is a true romance food, requiring just a few simple ingredients to create an extraordinary wheel: milk, love, chemistry, and plenty of time.

To Helen Howarth, Owner of Fromagio’s in Anchorage, it takes just as much time for our tastebuds to develop for good cheese as it does to produce it.

“We all probably hated coffee the first time we tried it,” she says, “but eventually, we became a bit more adventurous. We learned our favorite roasts and varieties, we learned how much cream and sugar to use, and now we can’t live without it. I always say cheese is very much the same way.”

There are over 900 types of known cheeses in the world, produced using the milk of animals including goats, cows, sheep, buffalo, camels, yaks, and even reindeer. Helen, who sells specialty cheeses, offers samples, and curates cheese boards at Fromagio’s, says that there’s a cheese out there for everyone – even the skeptical.

“I put out enough variety in taste and texture on my cheese boards, so there’s something everyone can bump into,” she says. “I know when I look at people’s eyes when I’ve hit the mark, because their eyes light up like two year olds on Christmas morning. You just see this transformation in their face, and they’ve found something that struck them as amazing. When we see that, we know we’ve nailed it.”

With so many different cheese preferences, we asked Helen how she would recommend arranging a cheese board featuring four cheese types designed for two different audiences: one a risk-averse crowd, and the other an adventurous group. Here’s what she recommended.

The All-American Crowd-Pleaser Board

Cheese Recommendation #1: Mt. Tam, Cowgirl Creamery

An American-made triple cream cheese made from organic cow’s milk, this is Cowgirl Creamery’s signature. Lovingly made in Petaluma, California, the cheese comes packaged in an eight ounce bloomy rind with a white casing on the outside that’s not only edible – but totally delicious.

Notes: This cheese is vegetative and mushroomy with its rind on, and buttery-rich by itself. Milder and richer than Brie, another crowd favorite, Mt. Tam goes well with just about anything you serve alongside it.

Serving Tip: Put a small serving knife on the side of the petite round and let people cut some off at their discretion, or make score lines to cut into personal sizes.

Cheese Recommendation #2: Midnight Moon, Cypress Grove Creamery

A goat’s milk gouda made exclusively for Cypress Grove in Holland, this is one of the younger cheeses, making it one of the more creamy kinds. Considered an accessible goat’s milk cheese for newcomers to the cheese landscape, this cheese has a very subtle “goat” or “farm” taste that many Fromagio’s customers love.

Notes: Rich and flavorful, Midnight Moon is pleasantly nutty and buttery, flecked with protein crystals (I call them the “Pop Rocks of cheese”) throughout its otherwise velvety soft texture.

Serving Tip: Because Midnight Moon is packaged in a rind, as all gouda cheeses are, it’s important to score the rind in a way that makes it easy to cut. First, score in a very close criss-cross the whole way around the cheese. Next, make a cut that’s horseshoe shaped around the wheel. Turn the rind on its end to use as a little bowl. Then, cut the cheese inside into small, vertical, even-sized wedges. You can organize the wedges inside the bowl you’ve made out of the rind for presentation – this makes it easier for guests to enjoy the experience without having to cut their own slice.

Cheese Recommendation #3: Verano, Vermont Shepherd

A seasonal summer cheese hailing from Westminster, Vermont, Verano is made with pure sheep’s milk at the peak of pasture perfection before it’s aged 3-5 months until ripe in August. A semi-hard award-winning cheese, this is the next best thing to sampling cheese on the farm.

Notes: Firm and dense, this cheese captures summertime with hints of herb and grass, along with a sharp, peppery tang that spicy food lovers will enjoy.

Cheese Recommendation #4: Point Reyes Original Blue, Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Co.

A crowd pleaser wouldn’t please everyone if it didn’t have at least one adventurous option for those looking to push the envelope into blue territory. An added bonus? This cheese is gluten free and made with vegetarian rennet, or enzymes that curdle the milk for cheese production.

Notes: Firm and salty-sweet, this cheese is classic-yet-intense in all the right ways: layered, creamy, pungent and punchy.

The Adventure-Seeking Board

Cheese Recommendation #1: Red Hawk, Cowgirl Creamery

This cheese, which I lovingly categorize as a “stinker,” is my top choice for those looking to take an off-road eating expedition. Made with triple-cream organic cow’s milk, this washed-rind cheese ages a little over a month before it’s brined in a solution that breeds bacteria.  that encourages growth of a bacteria that creates its distinctive smell.  Don’t worry: in most “living” foods like cheese, bacteria are an important part of the process.  We wouldn’t have so many great cheeses without the help of these little microbes!

Notes: With such a pungent aroma, you’d expect this cheese to be all tang – but surprisingly enough, Red Hawk delivers serious buttery and creamy appeal. This is a cheese you get to experience twice: with your nose and your mouth.

Cheese Recommendation #2: Idiazabal, Spain

This lightly smoked sheep’s milk cheese hails from the plains of LaMancha in Spain.  Made in a petite round, Idiazabal was traditionally made in huts as the shepherds moved their herds across the plains to graze. The huts were heated with wood and the smoke infused the cheese with a subtle smoky flavor.  The cheese is made with modern techniques now, but tradition still defines this cheese.

Notes: With a pleasantly oily mouthfeel, Idiazabal hits all the right notes of smoky and sweet reminiscent of bacon or roasted nuts.

Cheese Recommendation #3: Trivium, Creamery 333

Trivium, a new semi-firm cheese released in 2016 by Creamery 333 out of Wisconsin and aged by Crown Finish Caves in Brooklyn, is one of the most interesting cheeses on the block. Although cheddar is traditionally made with cow’s milk, this one is made with goat, providing a unique flavor profile that’s all its own.

Notes: Dense and rich, Trivium’s heady tang is complemented by a sweet caramelly finish.

Cheese Recommendation #4: Valdeon

While most blues are wrapped in foil, this Sycamore leaf-wrapped Spanish blue hearkens back to the rustic days of cheesemaking, before foil, to retain moisture and minimize rind formation. A mixed-milk cheese made with cow, goat, and sheep’s milk, Valdeon is one of Spain’s top picks but is still a bit of an outsider here in the States. An unusual sight to behold, this is a selection that’s as bold on the inside as it is beautiful on the outside.

Notes: Located on the stronger end of the spectrum, Valdeon is a spicy-sweet blue with a distinctly different flavor from the milder, Point Reyes variety. Its green-blue veining provides complex smokiness to counter its salty-sweetness, and crumbles beautifully.

Savory Pairings

There are so many options to choose from when it comes to savory cheeses, which deliver some of the ying to a sweet or creamy cheese’s yang. I love to present small bowls of Alaska Kimchi or kale-carrot cumin, both produced by local maker Evie’s Brinery, on a cheese board to totally transform an otherwise straightforward experience.

Mustards also make for a pleasant, texturized savory option, especially stone ground mustard which shines on a crisp baguette. Salty cured meats like salami or prosciutto deliver some heft, especially useful when wrapping cheese bites in small party-friendly servings. or Cornichon pickles, tart French gherkins, perform like a palate cleanser between cheeses.

With cheese that have a lot going on – especially the more adventurous types – I like to serve a basic cracker or baguette to balance them out while still delivering on texture. A crostini made with olive oil, sea salt, and pepper baked for several minutes are a wonderful addition to just about any cheese board.

Sweet Pairings

For cheeses that are over-the-top decadent and creamy, such as the younger cheeses, I love to pair them with a fresh fruit arrangement; the citrus acidity brings the balance to the fat.

If you’re hosting an event where food will be sitting out for some time, you might want to try dried cherries, apricots, or candied nuts, which you can buy pre-packaged or make at home. Simple and Crisp, based in Washington, makes beautiful dried apples, pears, and blood oranges, which are not only visually stunning but break up the tempo of soft cheese experiences.

Creamy types also pair well with something a bit complex, such as rhubarb, pickled figs, chutneys or preserves. Intense blues, such as the Point Reyes Original Blue, call for a sensuous drizzle of raw honey with honeycomb, a dollop of sweet jelly, or fresh berries to brighten both taste and board appeal.

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