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Throwback Thursday: Cheese & Wine Party

Tony Jackman and The Foodie’s Wife, Diane Cassere, prepared this presentation as a generic illustration of a cheese and wine party board. Note the ‘hedgehog’ of nibbles stuck into a halved orange. We had to give it a try. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

So Seventies, right? But we can reframe the classic retro cheese and wine party for our times, and make them Instagrammable in the process. And planning and executing one can be a lot of fun for you and your friends.

A cheese and wine party, back in the day, could be a fascinating affair with all sorts of cheeses and as many different wines, but more often than not it was just a trestle table with bottles of wine plonked on it and plates of mundane cheeses. If there was anything more intriguing than Cheddar, Gouda and a wedge of Roquefort for the really adventurous, things were looking up.

For the more elaborate version, a “hedgehog” would be stuck with toothpicks speared through squares of cheese interspersed with red, green, white or yellow cocktail onions and bits of cocktail sausages. The “hedgehog” had not died a grisly and bloody death: it was a halved pineapple, more often than not, though a smaller firm fruit such as a halved orange could also be used.

The more stylish host/ess would whip up a pâté, perhaps some blinis with a blob of cream cheese on it and some or other pickle, and maybe some devils or angels on horseback (oysters, but more likely prunes). But chances are the spread would disappoint.

We have a far greater variety of cheeses available today, and most of us know our way around a wine list by now. Where before were just Cheddar, “sweetmilk” and a few blue cheeses, we now have a world of brilliant cheese available, and even a great variety of truly impressive South African ones. We sure have come a long way. So we can use this knowledge and availability of both great cheeses and wines to create a 21st century way of planning a cheese and wine party.

This does cost, however. So let’s rethink the retro cheese and wine party as a Bring Your Own affair. This makes it more affordable for the host, with everyone playing a role and contributing something. This also ensures a great variety of cheese and wine styles, with all the fun of matching them up. And with two long years of lockdown now pretty much behind us (fingers crossed, hold thumbs, touch wood), this could be just what we need as we learn to hang out together again in one another’s homes, with a greater appreciation than ever of how important our friends are.

Let’s frame it like this: There’s more to a cheese and wine party than cheese and wine. You can rustle up dips and pâtés, pickles, olives, nuts, dried fruit such as sultanas and dates, green fig and makataan preserves and jams, drossies of grapes, cute canapés, even salami and prosciutto and fresh seasonal fruit, crackers, cheese straws and blinis, but none of these add-ons should take attention away from the full focus you need to have on the cheeses and, of course, the wines.

Cheese is expensive, and so is wine, so make it a BYO affair and retain some control over who brings what. Ask everyone to bring one bottle of wine and one wedge of cheese, or half of those coming to bring cheese and the rest of them wine. Divide your cheese needs into types: hard and soft, semi-soft and semi-hard, blue, chevre/goat’s, imported and local, mild and palate-numbing, young and so veiny that it’s crawling off the cheeseboard of its own accord. There’ll be somebody who likes it like that. (Me.)

To be equitable (some have more or less money than others), create a WhatsApp broadcast group and send out a list of cheese types and ask everyone to put their name down for each. There’ll be a bit of juggling to do (sorry, Denzil has already taken Pont l’Eveque, how about boerenkaas?).

Or be specific and ask one person to bring Cheddar, another Camembert, another Brie, another Boerenkaas, Pont l’Eveque etc. To take this a step further, let people choose a wine to match their style of cheese; this will encourage variety in the wines as well as the cheeses on offer.

Give your WhatsApp broadcast group a cool name to fit the occasion. And all of you can pitch in, prior to the event, by WhatsApping each other about potential matchups. For a blue cheese or a pungent, stinky cheese such as Pont l’Eveque, you may want to choose a sweet wine; a noble late harvest or port, or a lovely local hanepoot or jerepigo. For a whitish, dry or brittle cheese, a bone dry white or steely sparkling wine. Bring the (light, not overly aged) chardonnay out for a riper cheese such as a mature Cheddar or strong boerenkaas; and reserve the red wines for the most impactful cheeses on the board. Spicy or fruity wines (Gewürztraminer, riesling) match many cheeses, especially the spicier and fruitier ones. As a general rule, the stronger the cheese, the more robust the wine to pair with it.

As host, there’ll be things you need to have in place when the evening comes. If you don’t own all of the accoutrements that the modern wine lover covets, ask people in advance to bring theirs. Accoutrements may include bottle openers, corkscrews and foil cutters that work, napkins, cheese knives (one for each different cheese so flavours don’t mingle) and slicers, small plates, wine and sherry or port glasses, a bowl for putting the corks in so you can find them easily again in the unlikely event that wine is left over, wine pumps, wine cooler sleeves, aerators, bottle vacuum stoppers and pourers. Carafes too, if it’s a big group and you want to spread the love around.

A few more tips:

Serve cheeses at room temperature. Remove them from the fridge an hour before guests arrive, and arrange them on platters or boards.

Write the names of cheeses on attractive cards, skewer them and stick them into each cheese. Get the person with the best handwriting to do this, if that’s not you. (It’s not me.)

Cut some cheeses into cubes to be skewered with toothpicks, and leave others such as Camembert and Pont l’Eveque whole.

The wrapper for Camembert and Brie makes an attractive container, as it were, for those cheeses, so just place a pretty cheese knife alongside it in the open wrapper. You could cut one small wedge out of it for show.

Aim for texture and contrast in your display. Put some items on a characterful old tray, others on a glass or ceramic cheese platter, others on a wooden board.

Also aim for a variety of texture and flavour on the palate. Have in mind that certain foods will pair well with certain wines, and try to place appropriate glasses in reach of the nibbles that may match them well.

Have all the accessories to hand and in easy reach: corkscrews, wine bottle openers, foil cutters et al as described above.

Think about mood and lighting. You do want to see the cheeses and their colours, but this doesn’t mean you want mood-killing bright white light that stifles the joy of the event. Soft light and candles do wonders, and candlelight near cheeses shows off their charms perfectly: check the photograph to see what I mean.

For our little cheese and wine party (very small, only five of us) this weekend we will put out the Langbaken cheeses I bought at the Karoo Food Festival in Cradock last weekend: Stout Willis (beer-washed); Williston (a young, uncomplicated but delicious cheese); Karoo Blue (sinfully delicious, OMG); Karoo Crumble (a champion well-matured cheese); Karoo Swiss (in the Swiss style, obviously, semi-hard); boerenkaas (a true beauty on the palate), and Karoo Sunset (washed-rind cheese). Rounding off the selection were the Langbaken Cambert and Ash Camembert. The latter is utter joy to eat.

The wines: The Hedgehog Colombard, supremely underrated, steely dry and arresting, suitable for most of the cheeses on offer; De Krans Cape Tawny; Pineau de Laborie; Omstaan Wit Muskadel XI, and for an imposing red, Alto cabernet sauvignon 2016. I think we’ll leave it at that; there’s plenty for the palate to think about there. DM/TGIFood

Tony Jackman is Galliova Food Champion 2021. His book, foodSTUFF, is available in the DM Shop. Buy it here

Mervyn Gers Ceramics supplies dinnerware for the styling of some TGIFood shoots. For more information, click here.

Follow Tony Jackman on Instagram @tony_jackman_cooks. Share your versions of his recipes with him on Instagram and he’ll see them and respond.

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