Every evening at Winterlake Lodge, an hour before dinner, we set out appetizers at the bar. The biggest feature of our appetizer hour is always the animated conversation about adventures of the day, but we also always offer an interesting array of specialty appetizers.
We almost always serve two hot appetizers and a couple of cold items. The star of our collection, however, is the ever-present cheese board. We serve our cheeses before dinner; not between the entrée and dessert, as I learned to do in France. There is a distinct advantage to this strategy: guests come in to the lodge from hiking and exploring and they are hungry. Their palates are receptive to different flavors and textures.
One small pleasure we have every year before summer gets started is that we get to sit down and select our seasonal collection of cheeses. We buy our cheese from a cheese shop in New York City and have it air-freighted in each week. We start by listening carefully to our cheesemonger’s recommendations, trying samples, and thinking about what works with our appetizer and wine list.
Classically, a cheese course represents at least three different cheeses, one of each type of milk (cow, sheep or goat).
Here are a few tips for setting out an interesting cheese board:
- Choose a nice board to serve your cheese on. I like the newer style bamboo cutting boards for cheese service. They are perhaps too pretty and too soft to actually cut on, but perfect for serving food.
- Bring cheese to room temperature before serving for best flavor.
- Serve a separate small knife for each type of cheese (so one knife isn’t used on multiple cheeses).
- Rather than organizing cheese by the classic three milk types, perhaps pick a theme for your cheese (that will compliment your other appetizers and wine selection as well). An example is serving only cheeses from Italy or a collection of all-American blue cheeses.
- Don’t cut cheese into individual portions. Serve them in wedges or blocks. That helps to increase the longevity of the cheese.
- Cheese is a complex and ever-changing topic. Keep a small notebook and take notes (and photos) of cheeses you enjoy.
We make specialty fruit and nut breads daily to serve with our cheese. We also serve a small basket of plain baguettes or crackers for more complex selections. I trim a small branch from my black currant bushes along the trail and spread it down the middle of our cheese board to separate different cheeses.
I like to experiment and make condiments and preserves to go with the variety of cheeses, such as rhubarb chutney, pickled beets, or hot and spicy pickles. A treasure every summer is the small amount of rose petal jam I can make from wild roses near the lodge. One time, years ago, I tried to make nasturtium jam to go with our cheese board. That didn’t work out so well. The whole house filled with a bitter and spicy aroma for hours. The smell made everyone a little nauseous. I can’t tolerate the smell of nasturtiums to this day.
A current favorite cheese I like to serve is Shropshire blue cheese from the UK. Shropshire blue is a cow’s-milk blue cheese made with vegetable rennet and annatto, a natural food coloring that adds a surprising orange color to the cheese. Shropshire blue has been called “Stilton colored with sunshine”. Serve Shropshire on a slice of chocolate walnut bread spread with a bit of rhubarb chutney.
Another favorite cheese of mine is the little pasteurized goat’s milk Chabichou from the Poitou region in France. This cheese goes perfectly with a small tray of fruit, particularly cherries, accompanied by a glass of sparkling wine.
Here is a recipe for rhubarb chutney that we use to accompany our cheese board. We make several variations on the rhubarb theme – sometimes we add green apple, fresh figs, cranberries or other fresh and dried fruits. We sometimes add beet juice to chutney to add a beautiful deep red color. We serve rhubarb chutney all year long. In the summer, I like to walk down the trail to the old trapper cabin at the end of my property and harvest rhubarb. It’s been growing in the same small abandoned plot planted by some long-ago gardener for over twenty years now.
- 2 pounds red rhubarb, cut into ½-inch pieces (about 6 cups)
- 2 cups dark red cherries, pitted and quartered
- 1 large red onion, peeled and diced
- 1-1/2 cups dried blueberries
- 2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
- 1 knob fresh ginger, peeled and minced
- 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
- 2 cups light brown sugar
- 1 cup cherry juice
- 2 cups red wine vinegar
- ¼ cup honey
- Combine all the ingredients except the red wine vinegar and the honey in a large saucepan. Bring the mixture to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer over medium-low for 30 minutes.
- Add in the vinegar and the honey. Continue to cook over medium-low heat until the mixture is thickened, about 30 additional minutes.