We talk a lot about what makes a great pairing when it comes to cheese, wine, and food. And since cheese is so rarely-- really, too rarely, in our opinion-- enjoyed just entirely on its own, it's especially important to know what foods will heighten your experience of the cheeses you serve.
Equally vital is knowing what not to do. (Oranges and carrots, for example, are just a preview of two things that just won't make your cheese sing.) Here, some don'ts to keep in mind when putting together a cheese plate.
When pairing foods with cheese, your goal should be to highlight both elements equally. Ideally, go for flavors that will accentuate rather than overpower the cheese itself. Similarly, cheeses shouldn't overwhelm what you choose as accompaniments.
The exceptions to the rules below may be fresh cheeses, which act as excellent foils to stronger flavors. But generally speaking, the following things are examples of what to stay away from when constructing a cheese plate with a variety of different styles, ages, and flavors:
Spicy things: There may not be a worse way to kill the flavors of your cheese. While a searingly spicy hot pepper jelly is actually great with a cooling, sprightly puck of goat cheese (see above disclaimer regarding the fresh cheese exception), it wouldn't do anything for the subtle flavors of a semi-soft, natural rinded sheep milk cheese, for example. Veer from olive mixes speckled with dried red pepper flakes, really spicy pickled items, spicy meats, hot jellies, mustards, or chutneys, and even crackers with black peppercorns. While delicious, these accompaniments will linger on your palate and hinder your experience of the cheese in its natural state. Lightly spiced things can be great with cheese, liked sweet, spiced nuts and herbaceous olives. But beware of things that taste more of what was used for flavoring than of the food itself!
Garlic- or Onion-flavored Crackers and Bread: Unless you want to be left tasting the bits of dehydrated onion or garlic that so often sully the surface of breads and crackers, save these items for other moments. And beware of the "Everything" flavor, too, which may have lots of onion and garlic lurking within. Some cheeses, like stronger mountain cheeses and some funky natural rinded wheels, actually have subtle notes of spring garlic or onion. Breads and crackers infused with onion-y flavors can mar these compelling undertones, so beware.
Vegetables: Clearly this is a category that may be a bit too large to generalize, so to be more specific, stick with vegetables that have relatively mild flavors, like sliced fennel and endive spears. Slightly peppery greens like arugula or radicchio can be great compliments to cheese if you're thinking of making a cheese-laced salad. But on a cheese platter, stay away from the most vegetal of vegetables, like broccoli, carrots, green beans, celery, and cauliflower. While these all may make great additions to a crudite platter (and broccoli and cheddar soup is undeniably delicious), they seem straight-up strange to pair raw with nice cheeses.
Citrus or high-acid fruits: Orange segments, grapefruit, kiwi, and pineapple have their place, but not on a cheese plate. While so many different kinds of fruits go seamlessly with cheese-- like apples, pears, grapes, and figs, not to mention all of the dried fruit that compliments cheese so well-- those fruits that are higher in acid tend to turn cheese acrid. My mouth nearly cringes with the thought of the curdling effect these fruits would have on cheese!
Tannic Red Wines are similar to citrus in their ability to turn cheeses bitter. The lingering effect of tannin on cheese can be so negative, you may walk away with an inaccurate opinion of what you're tasting. You'll ruin not only your impression of the cheese, but of the wine, too!
So as not to close with only the things not to do, here are some of our favorite things TO serve alongside your cheese:
Pressed Fig and Almond Cake
And finally, if you're interested in more tips on designing your own cheese plates, check out our Five Tips for Flawless, Fabulous Cheese Plate Construction and How To Assemble A Cheese Plate Appetizer!
Nora Singley is an avid lover of cheese, and for some time she was a cheesemonger and the Director of Education at Murray's Cheese Shop in New York City, where she continues to teach cheese classes for the public. She is currently an Assistant TV Chef and food stylist on The Martha Stewart Show.
Related: The Cheesemonger Meets the Winemonger: A Cheese and Wine Pairing Primer
(Image: Flickr user Frank Gruber licensed for use under Creative Commons.)