The Art of the Cheese Plate
A pliable, off-white rind is sliced through, revealing a buttery layer beneath—utensil dipped into the creamy innards to unearth the flavors developed there, fostered within a silky shell. Something salty and solid finds the embrace of a grater, the resulting flakes topping salads and pastas alike.
Cheeses, like people, can exhibit countless traits. Some soft and mild; others firm and funky. Rinds ashed and wrinkled; insides sweet, subtle, creamy, tangy. And because of these multitudes of texture and taste, love affairs with cheese can come fast and furious, time and time again—infatuation from first bite.
Tia Keenan, a New York City–based chef-fromagère fell in love with cheese for the reason most people do—“how delicious it is”—but developed that initial appreciation into a full-blown culinary obsession, and eventually, a career.
“I’ve always been a creative person,” she says. “As a young adult I thought I’d be a visual artist. Then I wanted to be a writer. When I found cheese, I knew it was a medium I could use to express myself. I loved its history, the visual, its flavor, its connection to people’s lives.”
After spending years in the restaurant business, waiting tables, working front-of-house and offering her expertise as a consultant on all things fromage, Keenan penned The Art of the Cheese Plate, an ode to the ingredient in its many forms, and a guide to pairings that accentuate the inherent flavors of 100 diverse cheeses from across the globe.
Think a bright, citrusy Valencay from the Loire Valley (goat cheese capital of the world) paired with mildly acidic matcha marshmallows. A traditional wheel of brie buried in a nest of baked kataifi, a crunchy Greek pastry identifiable by its unruly strands. A sticky—and stinky—Époisses paired with colorful carrot, lotus root and cauliflower chips to be dipped into the silken center.
While some recipes serve to complement the flavors of the cheese—such as tequila-braised rhubarb with a briny Saint-André, mimicking another classic pairing: margaritas and salt—others act as the perfect opposition, guaranteeing that even the most indulgently creamy of cheeses doesn’t overwhelm or fatigue the palate.
Keenan’s accompaniment recipes range from the meaty (bison jerky, crispy prosciutto and dried cantaloupe), to the sweet (sticky tamarind-glazed Brazil nuts, green peppercorn meringue), to the acidic (deviled lemon curd, quick-pickled Seckel pears). And while the author owns to having a serious sweet tooth, she also takes particular pride in the variety of vegetable recipes on display, like miso-glazed carrots and butter-poached morel mushrooms.
Despite the scope of the book, Keenan says the point was “to make The Art of the Cheese Plate accessible and user-friendly,” rather than intimidating. A culmination of a decade of culinary work, the book offers an abundance of information, breaking down everything from temperature preferences, to plate size recommendations, to how to form a committed relationship with a cheese seller.
In her Queens neighborhood, Keenan gives a nod to Astoria Bier & Cheese as a trusted source of quality products, housing a worldly collection of cheeses alongside a variety of charcuterie and craft beers. The shop opened in 2012 as an answer to the area’s lack of a central cheese destination, but the author notes that unique cheeses are spread far and wide across the borough’s diverse neighborhoods.
“One of the things I love about Queens is how much cheese you can find in specialty food stores that serve immigrant communities. Egyptian cheese! Croatian cheese! Cheese from everywhere around the world.”
In Keenan’s tome, she elevates these cheeses beyond the status of mere aperitif, presenting them, rather, as the stars of the show. When it comes to pairings, she notes that less is often more. “People think a ‘good’ cheese plate means adding a lot of ‘fancy’ accompaniments, like truffle honey. … Keep it simple, focus on the quality of the cheese,” she cautions.
In the end, the book as a whole acts less as a cookbook and more as a bucket list for cheese lovers, an aspirational guide for those most compelled by the taste and touch of the ingredient. Its presence on your coffee table acts as a declaration of steadfast love and devotion to the world. After all, as Keenan writes, for many the purpose of cheese goes far beyond the culinary. It “occupies a space in our lives between grocery and luxury, and that’s why it satiates our hunger, both physical and existential.”
The Art of the Cheese Plate. By Tia Keenan (Rizzoli, 2016)