Every summer, I do this thing where I pretend I don’t know my husband hates picnics. Before I go on, I should mention, that he’s not a total curmudgeon. He just has this little hip flexor issue that makes ground seating less than comfortable. But when the days get longer and evenings get warmer, this little detail escapes me and I exclaim, with real genuine, unabashed excitement, “We should have a picnic today!” He rolls his eyes. “With cheese!” In my head, those two little words carry wheels of weight.
If I’m lucky, he’ll agree, either out of sheer kindness or because even he can’t resist the overflowing platters of cheese, cured meats, and pickled vegetables that tend to go hand-in-hand with plaid blankets and shadow-patched park grass. So, this week, we’re doing something a little different. Because I need to up my platter game before I have this inevitable exchange with my husband.
Here, local Portland winemaker and meat and cheese aficionado from my neighborhood Whole Foods Market, Justin Russell, helps us learn a little bit more about how to build a balanced meat and cheese tray.
Summer picnics, I’ll see you soon.
What are the most important things to think about when preparing a meat and cheese tray?
I think balance, texture, and approachability. You want to make sure you’re covering your bases as far as things like having a hard cheese, a soft cheese, and a blue. You also have to strike that balance with meats. Something with some heat, something with some salt, and something with a little bit of tooth to it – like thickness – to add contrast. You don’t want everything to be the same slice, you want some textural contrast. You want to think about that with the cheese, too.
As far as approachability, you want to play to your crowd. You want to make sure that you’re putting together a board that’s accessible. You don’t want to hand them a board that has the stinkiest kind of cheese that you love; you want to give them things they can understand so you don’t overwhelm people.
For a gathering of, say, 8 people, what would be the ideal number of meat and cheese items?
I would do 2-3 cheeses and 2-3 meats as well. So, a blended piece of about 5 items. For 8 people, a little goes a long way. You want to do in between ¼-1/3 pound of each cheese and around ¼-pound for each meat, which, if it’s just a snack board kind of thing, is more than enough. People often overestimate how much they need when in reality, if you’re slicing something like salami super thin, a quarter pound is almost 25 slices, which is a lot of salami.
Are there any meat or cheese staples that need to be on any meat and cheese board?
I think a soft cheese – cheese that can be cut with a butter knife – is almost always necessary. It’s something people get and understand. Also, the butterfat is generally a great palate play with super salty salami. That’s something I like to do. I try to take something like a finocchiona or a soppresatta that’s going to have a little extra salt and play it against something like a triple cream, which makes a really nice contrast.
When I think about what I want to avoid, I actually think about what I want to drink with it. If it’s the middle of summer and you have some hot salami, you don’t want to serve it with red wine because it’s only going to make things seem so much hotter. So I think about what I want to have outside of the plate, with beverage being the most important question about avoidances.
For example, if you’re doing pickled veggies on your plate, you have to be really careful about what you’re drinking. It’s almost always going to be better to have those plates with beers or ciders than it is with like a really tart, high-acid white wine. Because what’s going to happen if you do that is your whole mouth will taste really metallic.
If you put things like apples or pears or grapes on the plate, you just want to think about things with higher acid and tannins. Pilsners and saisons are really great with those kinds of things because they balance out the sweetness really well.
Yeah, actually, saisons and cheese plates are magic. All the time. If you can’t figure out what to drink with a cheese plate, just drink a saison.
What kinds of condiments should show up on a plate? What about pickled things, nuts, fruits, or other accompaniments?
Really, there are no rules. You have to think about color when you build a plate, the visual aspect is important. So things like pickled red onions are great.
As far as condiments, I love honey. I think it goes great with blue cheese or any sort of hard Italian cheese like pecorino-style. Fig spreads and triple cream go great together. Super soft sheep’s milk cheeses do too. We have this meta-crèma, it’s like a whipped sheep’s milk cheese, that’s gorgeous with fig spread. Also, fruit pastes, like quince paste, are really great against super soft cheeses as well.
I also love mustards, hot mustards against blue cheeses are incredibly beautiful. Mustards are a different kind of heat than you’d get from something like salami, too. It’s a short-lived, almost wasabi style heat, it’s a really palate-opening kind of heat. So mustards are great.
When it comes to including seafood, what’s the word?
I really like doing seafood in a pâté style. Pâté is just such a great textural contrast to the rest of the board.
I like the crunchy aspect of roe or caviar, too. It’s a great replacement for nuts, like if someone has a nut allergy. Roe is a great option for giving them the salt and the crunch factor. That’s also a great way to go if you’re doing a cocktail hour, it pairs so well with a really citrus-focused rum or vodka drink.
What about crackers and bread? Do you go fancy, elaborate or super plain?
I like things to be as plain as possible. I’m looking for something to be a vehicle and not interfere with the cheese or condiment. I want it to be something I can assemble onto, so I want it to be sturdy, but not have it be overly-flavored. I love La Panzanella crackers or a baguette that I can just tear into, especially on a picnic. I think those simple things are my personal favorites. I think if you’re going to do a flavored cracker, a rosemary or a cracked pepper are the way to go because they’re subtle and nuanced but not overpowering.
A lot of my friends are gluten-free. Any favorite crackers or breads for those who can’t eat the wheat?
Yeah, I really like Nut Thins. They have a good stable texture and they’re pretty baseline—they’ve basically perfected the gluten-free cracker recipe. Lesley Stowe’s also has some great crackers that are a little larger and that are crisp, which is nice. Tamari or rice crackers also work – they can be a little waxy and bland, but they work.
We spoke earlier about how to match boards to different types of meats, cheeses, and extras. Are there any specific beers or wines that you think go well with a summer meat and cheese board?
For beer, I love the Logsdon Farmhouse, it has tons of character. I also think that Commons is doing a really nice job—they’re Urban Farmhouse is really great and just so easy to pair with. Both great beers.
For wine, I encourage people to be less afraid of sugar when they’re doing a wine and cheese plate. I think Teutonic is doing some really great things, they have a wine called Jazz Odyssey, which is just really really good with super stinky or super salty cheeses. I’m also a big fan of Maysara, out of McMinneville, their whites, especially the pinot gris and the blanc, are really great with cheese plates.
If you’re looking for pinot noirs, I’d check out Vista Hills out of Dundee, they’re good. Day Wines is doing some really great stuff, too. Her cab franc blend and her syrah-viognier—both of those are really delicious wines with a cheese plate.
And I know you’re being all modest about this but I hear you also have your own label.
Yep, it’s available at Whole Foods throughout Portland.
Is there anything from your urban winery – Jasper Sisco – that might go particularly well with a meat and cheese board?
I make a blend called Gratus Bynum that’s Riesling, Pinot Gris, and Muscat, that’s got some super bright and very aromatic qualities. It’s from a site way up in Northern Washington called Fruitland Valley Vineyard. And there were tons of forest fires up there this year so there’s this really great, sort of sandlewood, Palo Santo note that’s just perfect with cheese.
Is there anything else we should know about platter building? Anything else I should’ve asked but didn’t?
I think people just need to know not to feel intimidated to ask questions at a counter. I mean, if someone’s behind the counter and you need help, you need to be able to feel like you can ask questions – that’s the fun part of the job! To help people build platters and plates. We want to help people so that they can go and feel educated and smart at their party.
I feel smarter, already! Should we go build a platter?
Let’s do it.
This post was sponsored by Whole Foods Market. All thoughts and opinions are my own (except for the ones that are Justin’s, those are his.)
- 1 baguette
- 1 box of La Panzanella Original Artisan Crackers
- ⅓ lb of Carmody Bellwether (the hard cheese)
- ⅓ lb of Adelle Anncient Heritage (the soft cheese)
- ⅓ lb of Blue D’auveergne (the blue cheese)
- 1 tube of Olympia Provisions Loukanika Salami, sliced into ¼-inch rounds (the thick-cut meat)
- ¼ pound of Finocchiona, sliced extremely thin (the thin-sliced meat)
- ¼ pound of marcona almonds (the salty, crunchy component)
- 1 jar of Edmond Fallot mustard (the mustard)
- 1 jar of fig spread (the fruit spread)
- ½ pound of oil cured olives (the pickled vegetables)
- ½ pound of castelvetrano olives, pitted (the pickled vegetables)
- 1 bunch of red grapes (the fruit)
- Assemble and enjoy!