For advice on creating a savory cheese tray, we turned to Max McCalman, the fromager at Manhattan's acclaimed Picholine restaurant and an expert on artisanal cheeses. He begins with a presentation that is both visually and gastronomically appealing, usually combining cheeses made from different types of milk. One-half to two-thirds are generally cow's milk cheeses, with the remainder equally divided between goat's milk and sheep's milk varieties.
Aim for a range of flavors and textures within each type of cheese, positioning them from mild to strong and soft to hard. McCalman suggests including a combination of the following types: blue cheese (such as Goat Hill Blue), mountain-type cheese (fontina or Gruyère), washed-rind cheese (Muenster or Taleggio), cooked-curd cheese (Edam or Gouda) and bloomy-rind cheese (Camembert).
Fine cheeses are best served at room temperature to ensure their full flavor, so remove them from the refrigerator an hour or two before serving. Be sure to keep the cheeses covered or wrapped until ready to serve.
At Picholine, McCalman serves cheeses on green marble slabs, which provide a good cutting surface. A selection of cheeses can also be presented on a wooden cutting board or a rattan tray covered with colorful paper leaves. To avoid mixing flavors, always provide a different knife for each cheese.
Any accompaniments should be chosen to complement the unique flavors of the various cheeses. McCalman often adds dried fruit, honey, a fig wheel or quince paste to his cheese trays; the sweetness of the fruit creates a pleasing counterpoint to the saltiness of the cheeses. Slices of apple or pear also provide a good balance to the milky flavors of cheese. On the other hand, citrus fruits tend to clash with cheese.