Tasting parties don't need to be formal or intimidating. You don't need a bunch of fancy little plates, matching cheese knives, or a large slab of marble in order to throw a fun tasting party. If your budget has you choosing between fancy china plates or really good cheese, consider which your guests would appreciate more. (If it's the china, you may want to rethink your guest list.)
Step 1: Consider Your Guest List
Hosting a party means providing everything, not asking people to bring items. If a friend volunteers to bring something without you hinting around, it's perfectly acceptable to say "yes," but it's also acceptable to turn down a food item at an event you host. If a guest shows up at the door with a food or drink item, you can either serve it or keep it for personal use later. You're not obligated to serve it to your guests.
You'll have to decide what number of guests works best for you, but think about your seating and what you can provide. Six to twelve is said to be a good number of guests for a tasting party.
How much cheese should you get? That depends on when you have your party and what else you'll be serving. Parties during the lunch or dinner hour should serve more food in general; if cheese is the main focus of a party held at 6 or 7 pm, you might want to count on up to 6 ounces total per guest; if various cheeses are just one option at a cocktail party, you might need as little as one ounce for each guest. Bear in mind that the 6 ounces per guest includes ALL the cheese at the tasting; your guests aren't likely to eat 6 ounces of each of the varieties you serve.
Think about your guests; if you know them well, you might have some insight on which cheese types to avoid. When I was buying cheese for this very casual family cheese tasting party, I kept in mind that none of the guests like blue or excessively stinky cheese. There's nothing wrong with choosing mild or common cheeses for a cheese tasting party if you know that they're what your guests would enjoy.
If you need help selecting cheese, try to find a decent fromagier at a cheese shop. If you know what you want, you could just as easily buy your cheese at the local chain grocery store.
Step 2: Narrow Down the Cheese Selections
Decide whether or not you want to provide information cards for each cheese, rating cards for your guests to score the cheese on things like texture, saltiness, aroma, intensity, or other characteristics. Some hosts also like to provide little notepads and pencils for guests to take notes on cheese they may like to buy later, because people tend to forget. If your party and guests are very casual, they might raise an eyebrow at the prospect of being instructed on how to taste cheese and how to take notes. Others might enjoy it quite a bit.
It's generally a good idea to include a variety of cheese; if you want to focus solely on flavor, you might choose cheeses that all have similar textures. You might want all mild cheese with varied textures. Otherwise, it's a good idea to serve a range of texture and flavor intensity cheeses.
Here are the cheeses I chose, in rough order from soft to firm: brie, fresh mozzarella, basket cheese, fontina, havarti, gouda, sharp provolone, gruyere, dubliner, and parmesan (make sure it's real; check for "Parmigiano Reggiano" stamped on the rind)
Step 3: Fruit Accompaniments
If you're using apples or other fruit that browns when sliced, soak the slices in water and lemon juice until immediately before serving. Some people like to combine a cheese tasting with an apple tasting and simply serve a variety of apples without other types of fruit.
Step 4: Meat and Nut Accompaniments
Nuts have a deeper, nuttier flavor, if you roast them in a dry pan for a couple minutes. If you opt to roast them, heat a pan on medium and toss in your nuts. Shake the pan every so often or stir the nuts until they smell fragrant. You might see some corners of the nuts turning slightly more golden brown. Don't burn them.
This salami was pretty large and thin, so I folded it over for easier serving. Guests would generally prefer being able to grab an item quickly over trying to grip and peel off a very flat salami from the other salami on a plate.
Please wash your hands before arranging anything.
Step 5: Crackers and Bread
A variety of crackers is highly recommended for a cheese tasting party. When choosing crackers, check the packaging to make sure that the crackers are in individually wrapped stacks. I forgot to check, and one box of (very tasty) crackers was full of broken little cracker pieces. The still taste good, but they're not so great for presentation and are more difficult to eat, especially with cheese.
Choose whatever bread you like, but try to ensure that it doesn't overshadow the cheese. I chose a simple baguette and sliced it.
I was surprised that the ginger thins were so tasty with all the cheese I selected. Don't be afraid to try unusual combinations.
Step 6: Other Condiments and Drinks
One plate had a variety of salt and another had two types of sugar and one type of honey. I crushed rosemary, thyme, and black pepper with salt to make an herb salt. I also used kosher and smoked sea salt flakes. There are so many varieties of salt available; if you have a hard time narrowing them down, you might want to consider having a salt tasting party. The sugar I used was cane sugar (came in a cake, which I then chopped) and sugar in the raw. I just used a raw local honey. You don't need much of either salt or sugar, but a tiny bit can greatly enhance your cheese tasting.
I also set out extra virgin olive oil, fig preserves, coarse brown mustard, black pepper, and balsamic vinegar (a decent type, but not the incredibly expensive kind that comes in 3.4 ounce bottles; make sure yours is made from grapes aged in wooden barrels). The dark shiny spheres are pomegranate chocolates. Every cheese tasting needs a little chocolate.
We didn't serve alcohol at this party, so I didn't need to worry about wine or beer selection. It's generally suggested to pair milder white wines with milder flavors, and robust red wines with more intense flavors. Don't be afraid to play around, though. Maybe you'd really enjoy red wine with fresh mozzarella. It's a good idea to serve both, along with some plain, filtered ice water to cleanse the palate. A couple types of beer might be good if your guests enjoy that. We had sparkling apple cider, sparkling red grape, and sparkling white grape juice. I don't recommend milk or hot chocolate for a cheese tasting; that would likely be a bit too heavy to go with all that cheese.
Step 7: Plating and Serving
When slicing cheese, bear in mind that the flavor can change from the center to the rind, depending on the variety. Also keep in mind the type of cheese when choosing a shape and size of piece. Parmesan would be a bit strong if chopped into hefty cubes, so I used a vegetable peeler to shave large flakes of it. I sliced the brie into small wedges to ensure the same proportion of rind on each piece. The pieces of parmesan were smaller than some of the others. The mild basket and fresh mozzarella were relatively large. People are generally able to eat more of those than the stronger cheeses.
Cheese is served best at room temperature. I recommend covering the prepared cheese board with plastic or waxed paper and allowing it to sit at room temperature for an hour to warm up before the party. The unsliced cheese can stay wrapped in the fridge.
Individually plated cheese suggests a much more formal party than I would likely ever host. I placed the accompaniments around the cheese board and allowed guests to choose what they wanted. Toothpicks, skewers, or serving forks are a good idea unless your guests are 2 year olds with a pathological urge to steal and hide toothpicks in rather inappropriate areas. In that case, just make sure they wash their hands before eating, and consider plating their food for them.
Some people recommend tasting cheese from softest to firmest. I arranged my cheese in roughly this order on the cheese board. Because the point of the party is a cheese tasting, it's good to label the cheese. I used some wood veneer I had in the craft room and wrote the names on with a ballpoint pen. You can get fancier if you want, but I didn't see a need for a casual party.
Step 8: Oh Noez! Leftover Cheese!
Cheese spread is easy to make. Cube your cheese and throw it into a food processor. If using cheese with a rind, trim it off first. Add a little liquid of your choice (water, beer, wine, or juice) and pulse until smooth. Cover and refrigerate.
If you prefer your cheese hot, make fondue. Shred or pulverize your cheese (it's tough to shred cheese if it's already been cubed, but you can chop it fine in the food processor). Toss it in a little bit of flour. Heat it gently, stirring constantly, with some liquid that contains a small amount of alcohol. Wine and beer are commonly used in fondue, but we don't keep those on hand. We usually add a little vodka to some apple juice, since we always have vodka (for making vanilla and other extracts). The alcohol is rather necessary in order to cut the protein strands; otherwise, your fondue might get pretty stringy.
I don't add parmesan or brie to fondue or cheese spread. I use parmesan in way too many other dishes to ever consider it an excess. I prefer brie melted, like on a sliced baguette with some fig preserves and maybe some sliced ham or turkey.
Thanks for reading! Post pictures if you have your own cheese tasting, no matter how small or large.