You should have no trouble arranging a fine cheese course in Western New York -- not if you believe Steven Jenkins, who lives in New York City.
Jenkins is a cheese guru if ever there was one -- he's the author of the wonderful "Cheese Primer" (Workman Publishing, 1996) and the first American to receive France's prestigious Chevalier du Taste-Fromage. He has also revamped the cheese department of several fancy Manhattan specialty stores.
"You have excellent sources for cheese there," he said on the phone. "I've consulted with both Tops and Wegmans and you have good specialty shops like Premier. In order to buy good cheese you have to find a merchant who is impassioned about it."
Jenkins, it turns out, is pretty darn impassioned himself. "When you're having your best friends over for dinner and you want to present a cheese tray as a first course," he says, "you don't just take three or four cheeses and hunk them up with crackers. You choose, say, three cheeses of different textures and flavors and serve them in all their glory."
Here's how to create a first-course cheese plate that, according to Jenkins, "will take you no more than about two seconds a plate." (It goes without saying that you first have to let the cheese come to room temperature to develop flavor.)
"No more than three cheeses," he repeats. "Any more is an insult to the other cheeses on the plate, any of which can stand alone. And no more than 1.5 to 2 ounces of each cheese per person -- about two bites."
What kind of cheese? The operative word is "balance."
"You might choose cheese made from different milks -- cow, cheese and goat. It doesn't matter about the country," Jenkins says.
"Choose a toothsome middle-aged goat cheese, maybe. Not sweet, not hard. Choose a cow's-milk cheese that's smelly and oozy. Choose a sheep milk cheese that's waxy and firm. And don't forget to taste the cheese before you buy it."
Jenkins is even specific about placing the cheeses on the plate.
"Cut it in a peasanty manner, showing some rind. You may not be able to judge a book by its cover," he adds, "but you can certainly judge a cheese by its rind."
"Take a plate and put a slice of each cheese at 10, 6 and 2 o'clock. Then fill in the spaces with savory things. Put in some olives at noon maybe, dressed with good olive oil; toasted almonds and hazelnuts can go in at 4 o'clock." Jenkins suggests tucking in a few slices of fresh fruit as well. And maybe some roasted peppers or tomatoes.
And bread. "Serious bread, not cutesy."
All this gets served up with its own knife and fork. "It will be memorable."
Closer to home, the manager of the World Class Cheese Department in Wegmans' Alberta Drive store believes in balance, too. Mary Kandler tells her customers to feature no more than three types of cheese on a plate, no more than an ounce each.
"You want to keep it proportionate to the rest of the meal. You don't want overfilled guests," she comments.
"Serve the cheese with warm bread and fruit to whet the palate. Olives are especially wonderful with sheep and goat cheese."
What cheeses to serve? Ms. Kandler says you can go with a theme -- all Italian, all French, all English. Or, she says, you can go with strength -- strong, sharp and gentle.
Some individual favorites:
Judy Holleran, Oliver's: Ossau-iraty, sheep's-milk cheese from western France and the Pyrenees. Hard cheese. Abondance, France, semi-soft, buttery flavor. Saint Nectaire, French soft with an earthy flavor.
Mary Kandler, Wegmans: Tillamook Cheddar (Oregon), Sage Derby cheese from England (green in color so it adds color to trays). Coach Farms goat cheese from New York State.
Karen Daniel, Premier Gourmet: Siere de Scey, a French cheese made by Mme. Perin and her sons, won an award at the fancy-food show this year. Buche de Toytu, French goat cheese not completely aged so center is still soft, can be cut in circles and looks wonderful on a tray. Great Hill goat cheese from Massachusetts, tangy. Wild ripened Cheddar from Egg Farm Dairy, Peekskill.
Cheese plate ideas from Steven Jenkins:
Italy, south to north: Mozzarella di bufala, aged Pecorino Toscano, Taleggio. Accompany with sopressata, roasted sweet red peppers, assorted olives, thick slices of Tuscan bread.
Real American Cheese: Maytag Blue (Iowa), Vella Dry Jack (California), Grafton Cheddar (Vermont.) Accompany with honey melon, prosciutto, chutney and sourdough bread.
-- Janice Okun