Good gatherings have cheese platters amongst the offerings, but great gatherings proffer more than just cubed orange cheddar and Ritz crackers. Since we covered picking out wine last week, it's only natural to take a look at wine's soul mate, cheese. This week, I took a trip to Crane's Delicatessen & Cheese Shoppe in Maplewood to talk with owner Steve Crane about putting together the perfect cheese platter.
Four years ago, Steve fulfilled a dream by opening up Crane's after 26 years in the health care industry, running home care and staffing agencies. The energetic, charming proprietor greets regulars by name as they walk in and makes it a point to introduce people he thinks should know each other. (In just the time I was there, I talked to the owners of St. James's Gate, The Framing Mill, Mia Cose Bella and Mona Lisa Gallery.) It's apparent to anyone who waltzes into his shop that Steve Crane is passionate about what he does.
When Steve decided he wanted to open a delicatessen, his wife, Janet, told him that if he was going to do it, he also had to reopen the cheese shop she worked in as a teenager. The Maplewood Cheese Shop closed down about a decade before Crane's opened, and as it happened, was located in the same space.
Steve, a Maplewood resident, brought Dave Ramirez on board, the husband of his daughter's fifth grade teacher, whom he met in the schoolyard one day. As it turns out, Dave is the former sous chef at the well-known Chanterelle in Manhattan. While Dave is currently running an organic farm in North Carolina and no longer works at Crane's, his and Chanterelle's influence can still be seen in many of the menu options, cheese selection and shop vendors. Crane's carries a number of products from Manhattan that are delivered fresh daily, which many local New York transplants in these parts enjoy having at hand.
Steve is refreshingly down to earth and approachable, especially for non-cheese mavens. He jokes that opening Crane's helped him graduate from mozzarella, cheddar and American as his staple cheeses. Not too bad for a guy who can't stop raving about how amazing Roaring Forties Blue from Australia is when melted on a cheeseburger. He's a natural with cheese and I would trust a cheese platter in his hands... Which, if you knew me, you'd know is more significant to me than trusting my life in his hands.
When it comes down to it, Steve is a firm believer in eating what you like and drinking what you want. Everything is, of course, subject to personal taste, but here are some great general rules of thumb that will get you well on your way to great wine and cheese pairings:
White wines will most often complement softer, stronger cheeses best, while red wines will typically pair better with harder, milder cheeses.
Matching regions makes for inspired and thematic parings. For instance, matching a Spanish wine with a Spanish cheese such as Manchego is muy bueno.
Sweeter wines will usually hold up best to stronger cheeses.
When setting up a cheese platter, Steve suggests adequate amounts of four or five different cheeses, especially if you have company. If serving the cheese more formally, he recommends larger quantities of a more limited selection of cheeses. Generally speaking, he favors platters with a wide variety of cheeses, often one made with cow milk, one with sheep milk, one with goat milk and a blue cheese. Texture and consistency are other elements he suggests balancing on a cheese plate, mixing hard, semi-hard and soft cheeses.
Geographic elements are also something Steve suggests playing around with when engineering cheese combinations. He'll often prepare around-the-world platters with a mix of textures and milks from different countries, often combining cheeses from Spain, Italy, England, the U.S. and France. Or he'll go the opposite route, featuring different kinds of cheese from one country or region (which is a great opportunity to create pairings with a wine from that locale!). He also enjoys working with customers to round out platters based on personal preference, customizing them after allowing customers to taste a variety of cheeses at the store. And really, there's no better way to compare any type of food than side-by-side tastings.
With all that cheese, don't forget to go beyond it as well. Spend some time thinking about what will complement your selections. Crusty bread is often ideal to serve cheese with, a more adaptable vessel than most crackers. Additionally, Steve suggests pairings with fruits for both aesthetic and taste reasons. Not only do fruits add dimension and color to cheese platters, but ones like apples and comice pears help cleanse the palate between cheeses.
I was lucky to be able to sample a Crane's cheese platter with a selection of Steve's favorite and most popular varieties. The plate he made up was gorgeous, complete with four cheeses, each sliced differently for variety's sake, served with pieces of crusty bread, grapes and Pellegrino. The cheeses were presented in the order Steve envisioned tasting them, from softest to strongest, which is what he suggests if doing a tasting at home.
I started with Brillat Savarin, a French triple crème. It has much more character than your typical brie, super creamy and succulent, smooth but with a slight edge. It was faintly sour, a tad sharp, but not at all overpowering. My second favorite, it was tame yet captivating. Next came the Manchego, a Spanish sheep milk cheese. A bit salty, nutty and buttery, it was tasty but paled in comparison to the strong character of other cheeses on the platter (which was probably a good thing for balance).
The Drunken Goat, an aged goat cheese from Spain soaked in red wine, had interesting body for a goat cheese. It was firmer that I expected and didn't have quite as strong a flavor as a traditional goat. The consistency would make it easier to serve at a party and is especially likely to woo those who don't typically love goat cheese. Finally, the platter ended with Roaring Forties Blue from Australia, which had flavor beyond your ordinary blue. Strong, creamy and unique, this was the star of the show.
And now, thanks to Steve's expertise this week and Hank's last week, you have no excuse not to invite me over for some wine and cheese. I'll bring the baguette.
Ben Salmon is a former literary agent and the owner of Kitchen a la Mode: Accessories for Cooking & Entertaining in the heart of downtown South Orange. Each week, his local food column at Patch explores the food and drink scene in South Orange, Maplewood and Millburn.
Have an idea for something you'd like me to explore? E-mail me. I'd love to hear from you.