PITTSBURGH — Cheese boards are the ultimate party platter during the holidays, including on New Year's Eve, because who among us doesn't like to nibble a little of this and nosh a bit of that while sipping on a flute of Champagne?
Yet for the person in charge of assembling said board, especially one who can't tell a sharp English cheddar from an aged Spanish Manchego, they can prove quite the stressor.
So many tastes and textures! And why does this one cost so much more than that one? It's enough to drive you mad, or at the very least shake your confidence in being the perfect party host.
Depending on your budget and time frame, companies such as Blanket & Board, Boards and Baskets and The Cheese Queen can do the heavy lifting for you with pre-made charcuterie boxes and cheese boards. Books such as America's Test Kitchen's "Boards: Stylish Spreads for Casual Gatherings" (2022, $30) can also provide guidance and inspiration, if you have the time to page through them.
Anais Saint-Andre Loughran, who owns Chantal's Cheese Shop in Pittsburgh, has these words of advice: Stop worrying so much about it!
A cheese board, she says, "is a blank canvas you fill with your heart," adding, with a reassuring laugh, "There are no hard rules about it."
In France, where Loughran grew up, cheese is routinely eaten after dinner, "and you cut as you go," she says. In the U.S., it's something of a mystery why the pre-cut cheese boards arranged in beautiful patterns are "so specific" when they really don't have to be to work their magic.
What you should consider, however, is buying artisan cheeses whose purchases will help support a farm and/or family. Then, she says, "just have fun."
Your local cheesemonger is always eager to recommend which cheeses pair well with which foods and wines. And specialty shops such as Loughran's on Penn Avenue, which she opened with husband, Chris, and named after her mother, have so many lovely, quality varieties from throughout the world — France to Italy to Spain to Wisconsin — that you really can't go wrong.
If you like all firm or semi-firm cheeses, such as gouda or cheddar, go for it. It's equally OK to play around with different flavors and textures if you like variety.