Choosing cheese for the perfect platter

A cheese platter needs no occasion, but it is a wonderful addition to any festive gathering. Whether being served as a starter or in the place of a dessert, the secret ingredient is diversity. It is the perfect opportunity to introduce your guests to different tastes and flavour combinations while also pleasing all palates.

When making your selection, factors to consider are cheese type, milk source, appearance and flavour profile (download the printable cheese tags featured in these pics).

The many types of cheese can seem intimidating when putting together a great platter, but with a bit of categorisation they are easy to master.

Fresh | As the name implies, fresh cheeses do not undergo a maturing process and typically have a smooth, creamy texture. They are mild in taste and best enjoyed within a week or two. Examples: cottage cheese, cream cheese, ricotta and chévre.

Soft | Also often referred to as ‘bloomy’, these ripened cheeses have a white bloomy rind and, as they age, become softer and not harder (ripening from the outside in). Examples: Camembert and Brie.

Semi-Soft | Usually mild in flavour, the high moisture content in these cheeses makes for a soft and pliable texture with a low melting point. Examples: Gouda, Drunken Pecorino and mozzarella.

Semi-Hard | Dense in texture, semi-hard cheese has a concentrated consistency while still being slightly pliable and melting well. The largest category of the cheese family, it offers a huge range of age and flavour intensities. Examples: Cheddar, Emmenthaler, Edam.

Hard | Hard cheeses are well aged and have a dry or crumbly texture. Wonderful for grating or crumbling, they usually have a sharp taste and even though they are mainly used in cooking, they’re a fantastic addition to any cheese platter. Examples: Mountain cheese, Parmigiano Reggiano, Parmesan and Grana Padano.

Washed Rind | During aging, the cheese is repeatedly washed with brine or alcohol such as beer or brandy. This discourages the growth of certain molds or bacteria, while allowing the right kind of bacteria to flourish, ripening the cheese from the outside in. The process also maintains the moisture level, resulting in a soft and springy texture with complex, nutty or earthy flavours. Examples: most semi-soft and semi-hard cheeses.

Blue | A sharp, tangy flavour and blue (or sometimes green) veins are the defining characteristics of cheeses in this category. Examples: Stilton, Gorgonzola and Roquefort.

In terms of the milk source, cheese is made from either cow, sheep or goat’s milk (or a combination) and it’s ideal to include at least one from each of these on your platter, if possible.

The appearance of a cheese platter is important and one with visual appeal is a lot more tempting. Mix it up and present a combination of different shapes, colours, rind types and textures – you shouldn’t rely solely on your accompaniments to add aesthetic interest.

A well-balanced platter is one that covers an array of flavour intensities. This can range from fresh, mild, pronounced, strong and very strong. Most cheese producers offer excellent flavour guidance on their packaging, but an informed salesperson will be able to assist in assembling a nice assortment.

A South African cheese platter recommendation:
Chévre or cream cheese (fresh)
Brie or Camembert (soft)
Gouda, drunken pecorino or smoked mozzarella (semi-soft)
Emmenthaler or mature cheddar (semi-hard)
Parmesan or mountain cheese (hard)

Download a print-friendly version of the cheese types and read some more cheese related articles:
What to pair with cheeses
Presents with a little thought: Edible Cheese Platter

Thanks to Karen Grandcourt for the beautiful photos.