Photo by Daphne Zepos
Cravings are seasonal. When I picture a summer platter of cheeses, I imagine it full of herbs, raw vegetables, and fruit. They build a symphony of primary colors around the cheeses. This picture stands in contrast to winter, when I crave fatty, gooey, glorious cheeses. The winter platter is lit in candlelight, a play of sepia tones in light and shadow.
In the summer, there is something very sad about rich, soft cheeses sweating in the heat. The selection has to be sparkly, with simple, contrasting flavors. Strong cheeses are interspersed with salad and ripe fruit. And mild, milky cheeses enrich the summer's clean flavors. The cheeses have to stand up to the accompanying drinks, which are fizzy and cold. Glasses bead with condensation, ice cubes chill the palate, and therefore the cheese selection needs some grand flavors to awaken the chilled tongue.
A summer platter should include cheeses that are made in warmer climates. These cheeses have been made for hundreds of years in hot conditions and were designed to withstand the heat. Take as an example the bold peppery flavors of a pecorino from Sardinia, or a kefalotyri from Greece, even a manchego from Spain: they have all benefited from a touch of warm weather during their ripening phase.
Finally, make the cheeses accessible, with the option to either easily collect a few samples on a plate, or simply to pick up a sliver of cheese with your fingers one at a time.
With these ideas in mind, I went to my local farmer's market in Greenpoint Brooklyn, and bought what caught my eye: crunchy radishes, garlic tops, sugar snap peas, baby fennel, and the first of the local tomatoes, which are still green. Consider Bardwell, a cheese dairy in Vermont, has a stand at the market, and they were selling the same little goat cheese (called mettowee) in two different ages: super-fresh with no rind, and a few weeks old, when a furry gray rind has enveloped the cheese. For the rest of the cheeses and bread I went to my neighborhood cheese shop, the Bedford Cheese Shop, where I bought a thin olive baguette, a Brooklyn-made mozzarella ball, a pecorino from Italy and a hard aged gouda from Holland.
I've been craving the Italian classic tricolore salad of tomatoes, basil and mozzarella, but it's too early in the season, so I thought of trying out an early summer version. I sliced the green crunchy tomatoes and wilted them in salt and white wine vinegar together with fresh red onion and some sliced garlic tops. I blanched the sugar snap peas and peeled the fennel to its soft crunchy heart.
An hour before dinner, I pre-sliced part of the cheeses and arranged them on a large plate, then filled in the space with the vegetables. Right before the meal I sliced the mozzarella, stacked the wilted tomatoes, onions, and garlic tops in the center of the plate and sprinkled with salt and olive oil.
The two cheese platters will serve up to eight people if you are planning to follow it with a main course; four people if you plan to make a full meal out of it.
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