david tsay; food and prop stylist: valerie aikman-smith
Sometimes called by its French name, chèvre, this was the first cheese I fell in love with. It has a whiff of the farm (or goatiness) but generally tastes quite mild.
sainte maure (pictured) A hollow natural straw runs through the center to let in air for ripening and to provide easier handling of this soft rich log.
humboldt fog The layer of ash in the middle makes this creamy variety resemble fog. It's great crumbled on a simple green salad.
coach farm triple cream goat cheese
With 75 percent butterfat, this gooey puck tastes almost like a tangy Brie.
Sheep thrive on craggy hillsides, and the resulting cheeses often have a little of that stubborn, upright character. These varieties tend to grow very sharp and salty with age.
brin d'amour (pictured) From Corsica, this herb-covered cheese is soft and piquant when young (that's when I like it).
manchego The most popular cheese in Spain, nutty manchego is impossible not to love. Try it on whole wheat with avocado and sprouts.
Milder than its hefty, salty cousin Pecorino Romano, this Tuscan variety has a slightly peppery taste. (In Italian, pecorino means little sheep.)
These cheeses are happy to stand alone, but it's good for them to play with others. They're washed with wine, brine, marc (grape brandy) or other liquids to encourage their distinctive flavor-and stinkiness!
epoisses (pictured) Often sold in wooden containers, this scrumptious, tr's aromatic cheese is spoonable-but not drippy. Serve straight from the container.
vacherin fribourgeois From Switzerland-but definitely not Swiss cheese! To the nose, it's high funk, but then surprisingly subtle in flavor.
european muenster Not the so-called Muenster you suffered as a child. Silky, creamy, heady.
Their intriguing flavor and veiny appearance come from adding blue mold such as Penicillium roqueforti. I've converted more than a few friends by starting them on the creamier varieties, then introducing club-on-the--head biggies.
point reyes original blue (pictured) This flavorful blue from California is made from hormone-free cows' milk and has a fairly soft texture.
montbriac Velvety, with chunks of blue throughout-probably the most crowd-pleasing cheese around.
cabrales Spain's big competitor to France's Roquefort, it has a crumbly, moist interior and drop-dead-gorgeous blue veins.
A cheese plate is a lot like a wine tasting: You want to go from the lightest and mildest to the strongest and most powerful. That way, you never overpower the flavor of the next cheese you're going to try. In the assortment here, I'd start with goat cheese, move to sheep, then have something totally smelly and intense, and finish with a blue.
Make sure it's at room temperature! When you take cheese out of the fridge, it's firmer and less tasty than it is after being out for an hour or so. Do a taste test-you'll be amazed at the difference.
As with all wine and food pairings, personal taste is always the key factor. You can't go wrong with fortified wines such as tawny port and amontillado sherry, which suit a range of cheeses.
(I must admit, though, that I usually keep drinking whatever wine is open!)
Some cheese experts say never; others insist it's fine with most cheeses. As long as it's not furry, I always give it a try.
Artisanalcheese.com, murrayscheese.com and idealcheese.com all have excellent selections. Note: If there's a cheese you want that you don't see online, try calling the retailer to see if a special order is possible; often it is.
If you're having only a couple people over for dinner, offer just a single cheese with a complementary condiment, fruit or nut.
You can serve cheese on any old plate with any old knife, but if you want to take your cheese course up a notch, try some fun, elegant props.