Americans are catching on to one of the best of Europe's traditions: serving a cheese course after a meal. Providing a variety of tasty cheeses tops off a great roast beef or halibut, or nearly any main course.
Add to its enjoyment by making a visually appealing display, and labeling the choices. Or, provide some mystery and take the opportunity to let your guests try some and ask you about each one in turn. Show off your cheese education! Either way, be sure to offer a few different samples to satisfy every palette.
Be sure to serve at room temperature, to bring out all the flavor of a fine cheese. For milder cheeses, that will require taking it out of the refrigerator about half an hour ahead. For harder cheeses it may take up to an hour.
Don't put them out too early, though. Cheeses can dry rapidly, and everyone may just want to skip the main course and head straight for the cheese! Leave the cheese wrapped or on a glass serving plate covered by a glass jar while it warms. Seeing the cheese is a great appetite enhancer.
You can provide a slab or wheel or tub of softer cheeses that spread delightfully on a fine cracker or small piece of bread. For harder cheeses, they should be sliced for putting onto bread, or cut into small chunks for individual sampling. Array a set of cheese knives to make things easy for your guests and to keep fingers from straying onto uneaten pieces. Be sure to have some cheese stickers in the center or nearby to make individual selection easy.
You can present the cheese on a nice wooden serving platter, surrounded by small slices of bread or little crackers. Or, you can array them in geometric patterns on the glass serving plate. You'll want a flat, sturdy surface whether marble, wood or glass as your design dictates. Knives should be sharp, but needn't be razor sharp. It's cheese, not tomatoes.
Separating the cheeses may be helpful for certain types. Cheese absorbs odors readily and you don't want a Limburger or even an extra sharp cheddar to overpower the more subtle ones. Laying them out on a large marble slab will do the trick, or you can arrange them in a wooden holding dish with separate compartments. But you'll still need to keep those extra aromatic ones a couple of feet away.
A separate knife for each type of cheese is best. That keeps each cheese isolated. If guests want to mix and match, their own palettes are the best place to do that. Not a bad idea, actually! Some cheeses work very well as partners.
A two ounce serving per person is about right. It's not a question of being stingy. Your guests are worth your best. But cheese can be high in fat and sodium and moderation is best. Besides, you still have that great dessert waiting!