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It wasn’t too long ago when the thought of cheese in the Midwest brought to the mind brightly colored cubes and blocks—orange, shrink wrapped, and indistinguishable from one another in smell, sight, and texture. It all melted the same, too: oily and clumpy. But no more! We have undergone a virtual cheese revolution.

Soft and creamy, unctuous and bold, silky and salty cheese. It’s no longer a sad stand-in for some appetizer filler, it’s now the star! Heck, sometimes it’s the meal.  And the food you can put with cheese can literally have you looking like your own gourmet food purveyor (and the rock star of any party) with minimal work! The trick is knowing which items pair well with which cheeses. So, here are some guidelines to make you your own cheese genius.

Soft and Creamy Combos

Cheeses such as camembert, brillat, brie, and burrata pair well with either dried or fresh fruits, your choice (just mix and match if you’re indecisive like me). Stone fruits such as apricots or peaches, berries, cherries, apples, and pears are some of the easiest. If you can find fresh figs or persimmons it will really be a treat. If you’re not in the mood for fruit in its solid form, any form of fruit pâté, jam, jelly, or preserve is wonderful. Lastly, don’t forget honey with your creamy cheeses—I love the honey and honeycomb we find at the farmers market.

Medium Textured Pairings

These easygoing cheeses (such as garraxota, percorino, manchego, and Wisconsin cheddar) are amenable to just about anything, so feel free to experiment. Fruit, nuts, jams, jellies, and olives are colorful and varied enough to please even the most sensitive palate. If you and your guests are meat lovers, a mild prosciutto or serrano ham is a safe way to go. Feeling a little braver than that? Try a bit of bresaola.

Hard & Hearty Medleys

Aged hard cheeses (Rolf Beeler gruyere or 993 parmesan, for instance) can really handle hefty pairings. Pair it with heavy sausages and chorizo, nuts with smoked pimentón, or sea salt and the fruit of your choice. Dark chocolate adds an unexpected twist to the usual pairing suspects. Look for saucisson sausage, soppressata, or just a good old fashioned summer sausage—it’ll remind of you all your family reunion cheese platters, but somehow better.

Blue All Over

We can’t forget to sing the blues! There are so many varieties: dry and crumbly, creamy and salty, creamy and spicy—and made from different types of milk now too! The one thing they all have in common (besides being called blue) is that they beg for the prefect foil to their over-the-top ways. Chocolates, sweet dried fruits, figs and fig breads, and yes, even prunes and raisins really bring out the flavors in your favorite blues. Really, it’s the perfect expression of the old adage that opposites attract.

Hopefully these guidelines can help demystify the art of cheese pairing and vault you into the party platter god or goddess you know you are!

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