We’ve all seen them pop up on our social media feeds: those glorious, complex cheeseboards, covered in not just wedges and wheels of creamy, sharp, and salty cheeses of all varieties, but also dried fruits, thinly sliced meats, ramekins filled with olives, piles of salted nuts, dabs of honey, and bunches of cherries or grapes. These aspirational culinary works of art seem more in the domain of expert cheese connoisseurs, not accessible to the average person. But if you have even an inkling that you might like cheese, you can put together an enviable cheese board.
In the fall, as the weather gets colder and we start gravitating toward cozy sweaters and our favorite comfort foods, the temptation to learn how to build an elaborate cheese board to snack on yourself or to offer to any guests you might be hosting this season becomes increasingly urgent. But where to start? Anna Saxelby, owner and head cheesemonger at Saxelby Cheesemongers in New York City, thinks the answer is actually quite simple.
“The first step is literally just going up to a cheese counter, whether that’s at a local cheesemonger if you’re lucky enough to have in your neighborhood, a farmers market, or even some of the larger grocery chains like Whole Foods and Kroger and Wegmans,” she tells me over the phone, “and asking the cheesemonger, ‘I really like cheese. What should I try? Help me figure this out.’”
When people come into her shop, Saxelby says she likes to play “cheese detective,” asking her customers what occasion the cheese board will be served for, if they like hard or soft cheese, strong or mild flavors, goat or blue cheese, and then based on that basic information help them pick a few different types of cheese to start with.
“People know more about cheese than they even think that they know or that they realize that they know,” she adds.
Diving into the world of artisan cheese — with its many and varied styles, textures, rinds, and flavors — might seem complicated or stressful, but think of it this way: After you learn the basics, you get to eat all the cheese your heart desires.
“There’s so many facets to enjoying cheese. There’s obviously eating it, the sensory aspect of it, but then the science and the chemistry behind it, and supporting local businesses and small farms,” says Saxelby.
Here’s everything you need to know about how to construct the perfect cheese board this fall.
Where to buy your cheese
Of course, Saxelby is a big proponent of purchasing all your cheese at your local cheesemonger because you can be assured that the products are likely to be “fresher, more flavorful, more alive,” and farmed sustainably.
“You’re supporting a small business that is creating employment opportunities in their neighborhood, and in turn you’re supporting these small artisan cheese makers that are bringing economic opportunity to rural places and improving the land. These people are farming with respect for the land and the animals,” she explains.
Saxelby’s “tiny soapbox” is letting people know that sustainable dairy farms aren’t part of the scourge of factory farms that exacerbate climate change. Instead, these farms engage in environmentally friendly practices like “pastoring your cows in season and working to build topsoil on a farm, and sequestering carbon,” so that when you buy their cheese, “you’re helping the planet and supporting small businesses.”
Don’t despair if an artisan cheesemonger hasn’t opened in your neck of the woods, though. The supermarket should be stocked with basic, but essential, standbys that will make a good cheese board every time. Saxelby says to look out for a “tangy, fresh, spreadable” goat cheese, like the Humboldt Fog from Cypress Grove cheeses. Add an aged gouda, manchego, and Parmigiano Reggiano — all which are widely available at most stores these days — and you’ve got all your bases covered.
The best cheese for fall
“When the weather gets a little bit cooler,” says Saxelby, “it can be a nice time to dive into some more rich, flavorful aged cheeses.”
She recommends trying cheeses in the guyere family, or alpine style cheeses that have a nuttier, toasty, or even meatier flavors. She’s also drawn to creamy, gooey cheeses like Harbison from Jasper Hill Farms in Vermont, which she says you can “leave on your countertop and eat with a spoon.”
Like strawberries or watermelon, cheese is in fact seasonal, so you might seek out styles that become available to eat as the leaves change color. One of Saxelby’s favorite seasonal cheeses is a sheep’s milk cheese called Varano, made by Vermont Shepard. She says that sheep usually only produce milk from May to September, so the cheesemakers age wheels of Varano all summer long, until they’re ready to eat in the fall.
“That’s something that has been lost in the cheese industry,” she says. “Through the rise of larger scale, commodity cheese making, the nuances of cheese have been lost. If you go to the grocery store, you can find cheddar any day, or fresh goat cheese for that matter. But if you get back to basics, and as many of these small farms have done, the milk changes throughout the seasons.”
Fall cheese pairings
Bold, rich cheeses like gruyere pair well with warm, spiced flavors like spiced pecans or other nuts. And you shouldn’t shy away from the stereotypical (but delicious) flavors of the fall season: Saxelby thinks a pumpkin compote would pair well with a triple crème cheese like Kunik from Nettle Meadow Farms in New York. Fresh, bright slices of fruit are always welcome on a plate of fatty, salty cheese; in the fall, apples and pears are your best bet.
Drinks are another important consideration, if you don’t already have enough to think about. The easy choice is to serve red wine with cheese, but if you really want to show off your cheese expertise and elevated palate, skip the wine and try a carbonated beverage. In the fall, cider is the perfect option.
“Anything that is carbonated and alcoholic goes really well with cheese. And that is because there’s something about the bubbles that will break up the butterfat that’s present in the cheese and provide a pleasing mouthfeel,” Saxelby says. “Cider has really beautiful natural acidity, that will also help cut through some of the richness of the cheese. And cheese is a fermented product cider [is] obviously fermented product, too. So there’s something about the wonderful microbes that are present in all of those things that just create these wonderful nuanced flavors.”