Ready to get the lowdown on the perfect combination of cheeses for your next cheese plate? Us, too. Keep reading to meet our cheesemonger, Nikki Cervone and learn about the wild world of cheese.
We're big fans of cheese at Made In, but honestly, who isn't? We're sure if the dairy-intolerant could eat it, they'd love it too. It makes for the perfect appetizer, snack, sauce, dessert, and meal. A plate of burrata and peaches sounds like a pretty great dinner or lunch, right?
This time of year, we consider a cheese plate the biggest hosting hack. With the right spread, you can keep your guests happy and full while you finish cooking. Plus, the right cheeses can set the tone for the meal itself.
Before we break out the brie at our next get-to-together, we decided to chat with a cheesemonger to learn a little more about cheese and arm ourselves with the knowledge to make our cheese plate even better.
Meet Nikki Cervone, a Pittsburgh-based food writer and cheesemonger. With a culinary education and a knack for explaining the ins and outs of food, we knew she'd the perfect person to help us out. Keep reading for our full conversation with Nikki.
What is your current role in the food/cooking industry and how does it relate to cheese?
I stay happily busy with two jobs:
I’m an Associate Editor and Writer at Foodal, an online resource for recipes, cooking tips, kitchen equipment reviews, and food/nutrition news.
I’m also a cheese buyer and cheesemonger in the Pittsburgh area, providing expert services with all things cheese – buying, hand-cutting, offering advice and knowledge to customers, building cheese plates.
How did you become interested in cheese?
Growing up, it was impossible if my family went even a day without some form of cheese.
One of my best memories is sitting on the countertop in my grandmother’s kitchen, nibbling on rolls of pre-sliced white American cheese and thin salami she would make for us when my family would visit.
And in any Italian-American kitchen, Parmigiano Reggiano was always an essential ingredient in my family, whether we were hand-mixing it into a big bowl of meatball mix, or grating a tall mountain of it on top of pasta and tomato sauce.
My hands smelled of that sweet-and-salty cheese for hours after. I adored that aroma.
But it wasn’t until I was in grad school at Boston University that I really honed in on this passion for my favorite dairy product, and learned more of the artisanal side of the industry.
I decided to take an entire course dedicated to cheese: the history, the making, the different kinds, the terroir of the lands, countless of in-class cheese tastings and pairings.
I would visit cheesemakers, cheese shops, taste warm and elastic mozzarella made just a few minutes ago, and try my hand at making my own fresh cheeses.
After graduating, I pursued various pastry cook and baker gigs in restaurants and bakeries, but eventually decided to focus my career on cheese – which has lead to my current job as cheesemonger and buyer.
So, I’m now breaking down the same 90-pound wheels of Parmigiano Reggiano that we would use to grate over our pasta growing up!
Where do you buy your cheese? why?
Visiting local cheese shops or gourmet grocery/supermarket stores with a dedicated cheese section are my favorite choices – energetic cheesemongers and shop owners are an essential source of information with a limitless amount of patience and passion to help you learn and make the right buying decisions.
What type of cheese is your favorite? why?
When it comes to favorite selections of cheeses, I’m ruthlessly naughty.
I want funk. I want stink. I want melty, ooey-gooey, stick-to-the-roof-of-your-mouth indulgence. I consider cheese as a reward – a rich and decadent pleasure. My favorite selections reflect that.
If someone is creating a cheese board for a party, what should they keep in mind? what types of cheese should they include/not include?
There is one word that I use repeatedly when discussing building the perfect cheese board:
While you should have fun creating a board, you still need to have a sense of cautious discipline to not overwhelm the palate.
Your cheeses should range in style, texture, color, and taste.
But be sure to limit yourself – I don’t like to have any more than 4 cheeses on a board. A board with an aged cheddar, a soft brie, a blue cheese, and an Alpine-style cheese (like Gruyere) is a great combination.
The accouterments are just as important, as well! You also need to consider texture, color, and taste of everything else you’ll be serving on the board.
Focus on your flavor profile. Savory? Sweet and salty? Let that decision guide you with your accompaniments.
Nuts, crackers, crusty bread, olives, fresh fruits, dried fruits, jams, and charcuterie are all my go-to favorites.
If you're only buying 1 cheese for guests, what should you buy to impress them?
Gah, only one?!? Haha.
I like when there is a bit of a shock/entertainment value when I want to serve a cheese to impress guests. However, the cheese still needs to be approachable and pleasing to the majority of taste buds in the room.
The gorgeous orange-hued Mimolette is the perfect junction of those two qualities – there’s a crazy-fun story behind how the cheese is made, yet the taste is mild and crowd-pleasing (think of a cross between a hard cheddar and gouda).
Mimolette is aged with… live cheese mites! And it’s totally fine! They are intentionally placed on the surface of the cheese as it ages. The amazing flavor and the hard, textured rind of the cheese are naturally developed with the help of these little guys.
And, yes… they are removed well before you buy a slice at the store…
What are we seeing in terms of cheese trends? Anything we'll see pop up on shelves this year that's new or different?
I’m thrilled that local cheesemakers are building their presence within the food community they serve.
Cheesemakers around this area are hosting events like goat yoga, dinner parties, cheese-making classes – events like these are creating a strong relationship and transparency between source and consumer.
A really great trend I’ve seen is the partnership between cheesemakers and other local food businesses. For example, we’ve seen some cheeses here where a cheese is washed in beer from a local brewery. Definitely ask your cheesemonger if there are any fun cheeses like that – the locals know how to have so much fun!
Thanks, Nikki! Be sure to check out some of her articles on Foodal and hit your local cheese shop to try her recommendations!