(This is a sponsored post written by me on behalf of Italian Trade Commission / The Extraordinary Italian Taste. All opinions are 100% mine.)
I don’t spend as much time cooking as I used to. There is simply more work, longer to-do lists, less unstructured time to fill with leisurely activities. But I realized recently that sometimes I’m simply paying less attention to those moments of leisure. What’s been missing was deeply inhabiting the down-time, taking note of those moments, reveling in them. It’s the simplest thing: I’ve started to write down the details, like taking notes on the way the light hit the side of a mountain on a long drive home, or the crisp bright sunshine of fall on a walk in the park with a friend, and it flips my perspective. I notice that, indeed, there are plenty of good moments. I just stopped paying attention.
How am I trying to pay better attention? On top of taking notes (which is, basically, keeping a journal), putting the phone down has been my best weapon. It isn’t easy. Like so many of us, I am fully and deeply committed to my phone. But I do a better job of putting it down when I’m spending time with people I love. Preferably with food. Cheese boards encourage a kind of celebration: of good ingredients, good company, and these good moments. Celebrating all of this feels quintessentially Italian.
I will be the first to admit that the iteration of cheese boards on the rise on Instagram isn’t exactly traditionally Italian. They are over-the-top, busy, unconventional, and AMAZING. I love the riot of colors, flavors, textures. I love how much they embody abundance. Consider this version a synthesis: beautifully curated Italian ingredients through a West Coast lens. It is the best of both worlds.
Like my post about Italian wines, I lean heavily on local markets, and the wisdom of the folks who work there, to guide my choices and answer my questions. Sometimes, I think these people don’t get asked enough questions, because they are invariably excited to work with me, offer selections, and help me compose something remarkable. I love their enthusiasm. In an age where we turn so often to the internet for advice, it’s refreshing to lean on the expertise of people. It is what they are there for. Find your local specialty shop, one with good Italian imports, and ask questions. It might just make your day – and theirs too.
MAKE A DREAMY ITALIAN-INSPIRED CHEESE BOARD
The beauty of building a platter is its flexibility! Anchor everything around a selection of cheeses. Go for at least 3 or 4, and select a variety from mild to bold, soft to firm. Crackers or crusty bread are essential. Think about textures when you build your platter: for instance, the firm crunch of an Asian pear is perfect with a soft cheese. From there, it’s up to you! Adding fruits (or even a few select veggies) that are great for snacking help to balance the salty richness of cheeses (and meats, if you add them.) Then, it’s basically a complete meal. All that’s missing is wine.
There are over 200 Italian cheeses that hold the PDO (Protected designation of Origin) or PGI (Protected Geographic Origin) certifications. This means that they’re held to rigorous standards around production, location, and labeling. Look for the PDO (red seal) label and PGI (blue seal) label for both cheeses and meats for your platter.
Asiago PDO, a lovely snacking cheese.
Parmigiano-Reggiano PDO, a classic, which is actually a delicious snacking cheese! It’s great with a apples.
Fontina PDO, especially Fontina Val d’Aosta from the Italian alps, is a fantastic and versatile cheese for a cheese board.
Gorgonzola PDO, essentially Italian blue cheese, is fantastic with figs.
Taleggio PDO is a bold cheese to bring to a plate with people who are open to big flavors. Most of its potency is in its aroma; I happen to love strong cheeses, so I’m a huge fan of Taleggio. It’s buttery soft texture is great with a firm, ripe pear.
At the market that I went to, I was sent home with a couple of beautiful cheeses from small producers, like Gran Cacio Etrusco. This is why I love to ask. It’s so fun to discover new-to-me flavors.
Fall’s seasonal fruit is an ideal counterpart to rich, creamy cheeses. There are some beautiful Italian heirloom fruit varieties out there!
Figs: Any variety of soft-ripe fig is perfect with a fall cheese platter. Slice them in halves or quarters for easy eating.
Apples: One of the most classic fruits to pair with cheese. Look for firm, crisp heirloom varieties.
Pears: Another great partner for cheese. Try an Asian pear variety for its firm crunch, which is a nice balance to soft cheese.
Persimmon: Firm fugu Persimmons are wonderful with cheese. Try them with a Gorgonzola.
OTHER DELICIOUS THINGS
Honey: a classic addition to a cheese board, and lovely especially in the cooler months.
Jams: Stone fruit jams are especially great. Try a specialty jam, such as sour cherry.
Olives: Such as the delightful green Castelveltrano or the Bella di Cerignola.
Nuts: Especially pistachios and almonds!
Crackers: There are some really lovely imported Italian crackers at specialty shops or the Italian section of your local grocery.
Sparkling Water: Italians do sparkling water right.
MEATS (IF YOU’D LIKE)
Again, look for PDO and PGI-labeled imports to guarantee the highest quality ingredients and products!
Prosciutto di Parma PDO, the best-known of Italian salumi.
Salamini Italiani alla Cacciatora PDO: an Italian classic.
Other fantastic salumi include Speck Alto Adige PGI and Mortadella Bologna PGI.
Build it up, mix and match, add some wine, and take a few notes after to remember the magic.