In Praise of the Cheese Board
When did the cheeseboard become a thing? I asked my sister the other day. She assured me it was a thing. And that I had definitely missed it.
Our friend concurred. “I think it’s already jumped the shark,” she said.
“Me too.” our other friend chimed in. “Josephine has been making them for years,”
A few hours later, she followed up with photos to prove it was true. Josephine was an amateur maker of cheeseboards. Gorgeous, decadent displays of charcuterie and cheese and olives and marcona almonds with a dried apricot scattered here and there for color. And maybe an edible flower or two if they were available at Whole Foods.
It turns out, my sister Sarah has been making them for years too. And I believe her. Watching her whip out a block of Philadelphia cream cheese, some pick-a-peppa sauce and a spray of caperberries with their stems, I had no doubt she was telling the truth. She too is a maker of cheeseboards.
I wanted to know more, though. Was there a booming cheese board business? Was the cheese board overdone? Was it one word or two? Were cheeseboards the Facebook of the food design world? Popular with the mom-jean set now that the millennials had moved on to something else? Worse yet, was a cheese board tacky?
I recently commissioned some cutting boards from the talented bowl-maker we work with in Charleston, and when they arrived all hand-planed and gorgeous, I needed to know if there was something in the zeitgeist that had made 2020 the moment for the board?
A quick hashtag search on Instagram left me with a few answers. Not only do cheeseboards have their own hashtag with 937K associated posts, but there are also hundreds of businesses out there devoted to the single pursuit of making beautiful cheesboards. Between them @queenbrieclt, @raleighcheesy and @thecheesegal have over 200,000 followers, and their sisters (because most cheeseboard makers, I learned, are women) across the globe certainly put the collective cheeseboard community at 1 million plus. There are Danish cheeeseboards, Russian cheeseboards, Midwestern cheeseboards, Southern cheesebords. Halloween cheeseboards, Vote! Cheeseboards. Baby shower boards. Bachelorette boards. Boards for funerals and weddings.
A deeper dive into google revealed to me that there is a budding new brand of influencer called the “the cheese board influencer,” of whom the “premier influencer” is Marissa Mullen, a Brooklyn-based late-night television producer with a cheese-board-making side gig that currently pays about “10 percent of her bills,” according to a year-old article in Vox. According to the article, and to Mullen, cheese-board-making, like baking cookies, cupcakes and homemade bread, “is a therapeutic exercise in its own right...they...carry with them the values of community, intimacy, and domesticity, all of which can often feel as though they’re under threat by modern life.” Wow. I really had missed the boat.
In the age of Covid, the popularity of the cheeseboard seems undiminished. Never mind that it’s not a great idea to eat a stuffed olive that the 10 members of your quarantine family have already touched. The mere presence of the cheeseboard in your midst confirms that you are close. That you still have a community. That you aren’t alone eating a cheeseboard for one, drinking too much Chardonnay and binging Netflix. Though if you were that person, there’s a cheeseboard for you (hashtag #cheeseboardforone was created in September and has 100+ posts).
I didn’t have time this weekend to interview anyone in person. An email exchange with our local Nashville cheeseboard influencer revealed that she was too busy planning for the opening of her bricks and mortar cheeseboard venture to connect before mid-November. Her unavailability was all I the proof I needed. The cheeseboard IS a thing. And it’s a big one.
And so, maybe we have missed the boat. Or maybe we’re right on time with our beautiful hand-planed boards, sustainably-made from felled trees in and around the Carolinas. Whatever the case may be, I’m now a fan of the cheeseboard. I like the idea that it has become an outlet for creativity, visual showmanship, comfort and even “self-care” at a time when we all need to believe we can make something beautiful with the ingredients around us.
Cheeseboard Tips and Tricks Gathered from My Instagram Research:
-Start with a beautiful board, like our hand-planed version in Sugar and Ambrosia Maple.
-Use an assortment of gooey and hard cheeses to anchor your board (Brie, St. Andre, Manchego, Reblochon, Stilton are all great choices and easily found in the Deli section of your grocery store). Fresh Market sells pre-made baked brie with a puffed pastry crust, a decadent focal point for a celebratory board.
-Pay attention to the shapes and colors of cheeses you use. Small rounds of goat cheese look beautiful next to a wedge of bright aged cheddar.
-Once you've created the architecture of your board, fill in the spaces with the practical stuff: crackers and breadsticks, slices of bread. The prettiest boards seem to rely on crackers with texture or color. Lavosh looks airy and delicious next to Rustic Bakery's Rosemary Sourdough Flatbread with its ruffled edges. Trader Joe's has loads of crackers to choose from.
-Now for the fun part: go wild with color. Add fresh fruit, blueberries, raspberries, apple and pear slices. Sprinkle dried fruits and nuts across the top of the board. Cranberries, apricots, and cherries are a favorite. Marcona almonds are a must.
-Don't forget the salty stuff. Add charcuterie, pickled vegetables and olives to the gaps in the board. Little cornichons and whole caperberries add a sculptural effect.
-Cream cheese with hot pepper jelly or Pickapeppa sauce is a great cheat, and a nod to your mother's 1960's tupperware party.
-Add a small bowl or two of soft cheese and jam or honey to give your board some height and a little more sweetness.
-Strategically arrange a cheese knife or two on your board and place on the table next to a stack of bread and butter plates.
-Photograph from overhead & post. Or don't. Use a hashtag. Or don't.
-Enjoy this no-hassle form of self-expression with your friends and family.