Editor’s note: Raymond Hook knows what cheese will impress your guests and your mouth. Read this and try not to drool.
A 3-cheese plate:
Fresh ricotta drizzled with honey and sprinkled with fresh lemon thyme. Try to find the freshest ricotta available — it will make a big difference. If possible, buy it from a producer who grazes their animals on pastures. You’ll taste the grass flavors, making the cheese even better. Cow’s milk ricotta will be slightly sweet. For the honey, use a flower varietal (orange blossoms, wildflowers, etc.) that is light in color. If you can get fresh sheep’s milk ricotta, drizzle it with a more savory honey with a darker, amber color. Both will be great! Wine recommendation: Champagne or sparkling wine.
Triple cream cheese (like this one) with a minimum of 75% butter fat content. Mmm. It’ll be rich, buttery and slightly sweet. The classics are France’s Pierre Robert and Brillat-Savarin and both are great. They’ll have a white bloomy rind, and ripen from the outside edge in. Try not to buy them pre-cut and wrapped in plastic — cheese tastes better cut fresh from the wheel. Look for only the least bit of browning on the rind as this will indicate that the wheel is ripened to perfection. When serving, always make sure triple cream is allowed to rest at room temperature for at least 90 minutes. It will be worth the wait! Wine: Dry riesling.
Provençal-style goat. There’s just something about semi-ripened goat cheese that’s soooo good. These springtime cheeses express fresh meadow flavors and light mineral notes. The classic is Banon, a small cheese that comes wrapped in eau-de-vie-soaked chestnut leaves. It exhibits bright, fresh flavors. Purple Haze from Cypress Grove is an American Provençal-style cheese and pretty widely available. It’s a small, three-inch round of fresh goat cheese, dusted with hand-harvested wild fennel pollen and a light coating of lavender blossoms. Wine: Sauvignon blanc.
If you want 5 cheeses add:
Loire Goat, the premier spring cheeses! This central region of France is well known for its goat cheeses, and most are semi-ripened and covered with ash. St. Maure is ash-covered and log-aged on a piece of straw. Selles-sur-Cher, the eight-ounce disk, also covered in ash, should be easy to find. The younger it is, the better. Look for ones that don’t appear dried out — they should still be moist and fresh looking. Loire goat cheeses are reputed for their minerality and tartness with hints of sweetness and floral flavors. Wines: Loire whites (sauvignon blanc).
Young mixed milk, semi-fresh cheeses, like those from northern Italy, are spectacular in spring. Made generally of a blend of goat and sheep milks, look for Robiola, the most famous and easiest to find. But my favorite for wine is one with three types of milk, adding to the flavor spectrum. Cow’s milk is sweeter and shows pasture grass flavors, goat’s milk is known for mineral notes and tartness, while sheep adds a dash of animal and savory profile to the cheese. Wines: Lots to choose from…