How To Craft The Perfect Cheese Plate

At the heart of every Italian family, you’ll find the respected tradition of spending long hours at the table, leisurely enjoying four courses of antipasto, primo, secondo and dolce. Most Italians relish cucina povera, unpretentious, hearty and simple food that’s all incredibly delicious. The perfect preface to a large dinner is, of course, the antipasto, appetizer. In a land abundant in cheese, meats and wines, Italy reigns queen of the antipasto, offering selections of mozzarella, prosciutto and robust Chianti wines. Each region will tend to favour the more locally available cheeses, but the art of how to craft the perfect cheese plate is country-wide. Impress your friends with these simple cheese plate tips.

Display cheese and fruit on a wooden board for a rustic look

Display cheese and fruit on a wooden board for a rustic look

The Tuscan Touch: Pecorino

Give your cheese plate a Tuscan twist with samples of Tuscan pecorino, cheese from sheep’s milk. The generic variety, often enjoyed while young, is creamy in texture and white in hue. Take a bite and relish its mild, nutty flavor. Like the taste? Upgrade to the treasured pecorino di Pienza sold fresco, fresh,or stagionato, mature. Pecorino fresco’s unique mild, yet robust flavor compliments its soft consistency, while pecorino stagionato’s full-bodied zest will leave a bold kick in your mouth. Distinguish the young cheese by its light, buttery rind and the mature by its ash-colored or orange casing. Impress guests by offering marmalade or honey as an accompaniment to the pecorino. Spread apricot, fig or wine-flavored jams across half-inch thick cheese slices. Finally, garnish each wedge with a single walnut or almond. The jelly or honey amplifies the mild cheese, and the nut eludes an earthy hint, guaranteeing a burst of flavor with each chew.

Heavy on the Cheese, please: Parmigiano-Reggiano and Grana Padano

Parmigiano-Reggiano storage

Parmigiano-Reggiano storage

Alongside the pecorino, place chunks of grana, granular hard cheeses like Parmigiano-Reggiano or Grana Padano. Don’t reserve such formaggi for grating or garnishing dishes, but nibble-away on a hefty morsel and savor the rich, salty tones. Notice Parmigiano-Reggiano’s potent flavor and compare it to the softer Grana Padano. Parmigiano’s stronger taste derives from a mix of whole and skimmed milk, whereas Grana Padano’s subtlety stems from the use of skimmed milk. Different pastures in different regions also account for the variances in taste between these two similar grana. Parmigiano-Reggiano DOP (Product Designation of Origin) hails exclusively from limited zones in the Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena and Bologna provinces, while the production of Grana Padano DOP is limited to the larger regions of Piedmont, Lombardy, parts of Emilia Romagna, Veneto and Trentino. Because the areas producing Parmigiano-Reggiano are smaller and limited, it’s more expensive than Grana Padano.

A Bite of Paradise: Formaggi Freschi

Lighten the dish with a selection of formaggi freschi, fresh cheeses. Serve mozzarella balls alone or drizzle them with extra-virgin olive oil and a dash of salt. For a cheese similar to mozzarella but somewhat creamier, search for a delectable burrata. Burrata is tougher to track down than mozzarella, but will be unquestionably worth every effort. Its consistency is rather fluid, but the cheese itself is almost comparable to whipped cream. Want something spreadable? Pick up stracchino, a dense, velvety cheese to smear on bread. Hunt down a recipe of the classic Tuscan friend dough, coccoli. Open these warm rotund bread balls and smother their insides with buttery stracchino. Layer in a slice of prosciutto and prepare yourself for a culinary paradiso.

Don’t Forgot the Meat: Prosciutto and Salami

Prosciutto crudo

Prosciutto crudo

An Italian appetizer wouldn’t be complete without the addition of several mouthwatering cured meats. If your cheese platter is already filled to the brim, artfully arrange your cold-cuts on another plate (any vegetarians you invite will appreciate this). Start with the basics, tossing on some scrumptious prosciutto, Italian cured ham. Whether you prefer sweet or savory, there’s a prosciutto for your palette. Tell the butcher your preference, and he’ll make sure to get you the best cut. Next, layer on the salami. Variations on herbs, spices, garlic and salt and differences between the widths of this dry-cured meat mean there are numerous varieties to select from. Look for famous varieties such as Cacciatore, Finocchiona, Genovese, Milanese, Pepperoni or Soppressata. Remove the casing before slicing, dig in and enjoy!

By Cassie Prena

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