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I'm arranging a cheese tasting for 10 adults in a few weeks, mostly hard Italian cheeses, and I'm wondering what to serve with it? I want the taste of the cheese to come through, but I also want people to taste the cheese as they would eat it normally, too.

Some thoughts I've had (mostly traditional cheese accompaniments): tart apples, dried fruit (apricots), prosciutto

Most of us are not big wine drinkers, so I'm not too concerned about that. If there is something non-alcoholic drink-wise to recommend, though, that would be good.

In case it is relevant, the cheeses I'm thinking of bringing are: Provolone (domestic & imported), Parmigiano-Reggiano plus a domestic Paremsan, Pecorino Romano plus Locatelli (not sure if there's a difference), Asiago, Piave and maybe a 1-year-old and 3-year-old Cabot.

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I'm not sure if this should be a community wiki, or perhaps be closed entirely. Feel free to make either change as needed. – Joe Casadonte Mar 7 '11 at 17:53
I've seen far more open-ended pairing questions than this, so I'm inclined to let it be (we don't use Community Wiki unless there's a strong reason for people to edit the question itself). I would suggest you include the specific cheeses in the question; that information is too important to be buried in a comment. – Aaronut Mar 7 '11 at 18:08
When I was in Italy, I was a little surprised that many of the cheese plates came with (nice) honey. It's a really nice combination. – yossarian Mar 7 '11 at 19:15
not a direct answer, but to comment on the cheeses -- Locatelli is a brand name; also for the hard cheeses, to get the full effect of the well-aged cheeses you don't want to cut them; you almost chisel or flake it off. Some folks use a spade-shaped knife, where you insert, then pull it away from the wheel. – Joe Mar 7 '11 at 22:20
Honey is also really fine with goat cheese. – Alexis Dufrenoy Mar 8 '11 at 10:13

2 Answers 2

up vote 11 down vote accepted

Usually a cheese tasting would have more variety in terms of texture and flavour and you'd progress from the mild to the stronger. However, if your goal is to compare a lot of similar cheeses to contrast with each other, you'll need to have more palate cleansing and balancing in between each cheese.

A lot of the cheeses that you're considering are aged ones, which tend to be quite sharp and salty. For the harder/saltier cheeses, acidic accompaniments will be important. Things like granny smith apples and tomatoes would be ideal. Something juicy and thirst quenching like melon (or the tomato) would also be important to include. Proscuitto, while yummy, would probably just add more sharp saltiness to an already overwhelmed palate.

As for dried fruits, another classic for cheese courses is dates since the sweetness makes a nice contrast. You might want to consider including something like a raisin bread as well as crackers for serving the cheeses. Chutney is delicious on crackers with cheese and could help balance the fact that most hard cheeses are eaten as a garnish more than on their own (e.g. on a salad, on pasta, etc). However, this might interfere with the "tasting" atmosphere you're aiming for.

If you want to pair with something non-alcoholic, a sparkling water is probably a good place to start since the fizz will be refreshing and the water won't introduce any other flavours to the palate.

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+1 — excellent suggestions, and beautifully explained. If you’re able to get good white grapes — ideally a bit less sweet than they usually come in the UK/US — they’re another fruit that could work well (and might nicely evoke the idea of wine). On the crackers front, I’ve found Scottish/English style oatcakes work very well with hard aged cheeses, if you can get them — they’re usually findable in Commonwealth countries in my experience, but I’ve not seen them much in the US. – PLL Mar 7 '11 at 22:13

Perhaps digestive biscuits/oatmeal biscuits, what would be called Graham crackers in America, as something to hold under the cheese. These would give a good base without being too salty.

The idea of fresh fruit is a good one, as the cheeses are hard and mostly quite salty/umami. I would add fresh figs (if you can get them) to your list. I'm not sure about dried fruit, as you're likely to get quite thirsty anyway.

You could also try fresh spinach leaves. The slight bitterness and fresh flavour will be a good counterpoint to the cheese. You could perhaps prepare a bowl of fresh spinach with a little light dressing to go with it, where guests could make little "sandwiches" with cracker, cheese and a leaf or two. If the dressing has a little Balsamic vinegar in it, the astrigency will also help to balance the flavours out.

To go in yet another direction, I think that a sun-dried-tomato paste or olive tapenade would not go amiss with the cheeses mentioned.

As for drinks, you proably want something pallette-cleansing. I can't think of anything other than sparkling water, or perhaps a light herbal tea of some sort.

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