There is a difference between cheese platters and cheese boards. Cheese platters are stacked with cheese, meats, nuts and fruit, and are meant for large groups—they are made for feeding frenzies. Boards are about presentation and appreciation. A good cheese board is almost like a painter’s palette—actually that’s a good metaphor, because tasting is sometimes about seeing the “colors” separately, but also about blending, pairing and experimenting. A good cheese board features cheese as part of a panoply of textures and senses—sweet, salty, hard, soft, sour, acidic, savory or blue, just to name a few possibilities.

Photos by John Rockwell. 

Cheese Cave Claremont
325 Yale Ave, Claremont, CA 91711

The ever-popular Cheese Cave in Claremont Village may not have a lot of seating area for cheese sampling, but you can custom order just about anything and have it wrapped or pre-cut and placed in an attractive box for take-out. When they do create a cheese board, it is always an attractive and artful presentation. The cheese board demonstrated here features some interesting cheeses that can’t be found even in high-end grocery chains. In November, their sister shop, DTLA Cheese, offered a $25 cheese board where you could choose five samples—cheese, salumi or both.

Cheese Cave is the perfect stop for creating your cheese board because you can buy all of the accouterments—nuts, dried fruit and Cornichon—pre-packaged  and ready to create your perfect cheese board at home.

Highland Park Brewing / Hermosillo Bar
5127 York Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90042

A couple miles down the street from Occidental College, Highland Park Brewing is unique in the world of California’s no-food production breweries—it shares space with the Hermosillo Bar, so it is able to serve food and host guest taps from mostly local-area breweries. Highland Park beer is awesome with its strong offerings of Saisons, Pale Ales and Stouts, but if you’re in the mood for Eagle Rock, Craftsman, Beachwood or Noble, you have some wonderfully tough decisions to make.

I love ordering cheese boards in bars because I know it’s not going to be some rare cheese that’s hard-to-find—it’s going to be crowd pleasers, and it’s probably going to give you a little more food for the money.

Case in point is the “Cheese & Charcuterie” board, with three cheeses and three meats, ringing in at $16. You can order a cheese-only or meat-only version for $10, but why not get the best of both worlds? The featured cheeses when I visited were St. Agur’s Blue, Spanish Cana de Cabra (a Spanish version of Bucheron) and Bianco Sardo, an Italian hard cheese similar to a Parmesan. The meats were Chorizo Navarre, Loukanika and a delightful Pork Pistachio Pate. As you can see, the nuts, butter-toasted crostini, fresh apples and honeycomb made this board a nice mixture of textures and sweet and savory flavors.

Congregation Ale House
619 N Azusa Ave, Azusa, CA 91702

With three locations (or “chapters” as they like to call them) in the greater Los Angeles (Azuza, Pasadena,  Long Beach), Congregation has always had a stable lineup of pub fare. Their cheese board appetizer, ringing in at $10, is a deal with its generous portions of a generic cheddar, blue cheese, and Chimay’s a la Premiere semisoft cheese. Served with pita bread and apricots, the board is a nice appetizer fit for sharing with a group.

Instead of making breakfast on Sunday mornings, I like to serve cheese to my family of four. Cheese is surprisingly filling, and except for the butter-seared crostini, preparation is fairly quick. On the board above, I selected Jasper Hill’s washed-rind Willoughby, Vermont Creamery’s St. Albans (a runny St. Marcellin style), and a colorful French Mimolette—a style where cheese mites help to form the rind. Prunes, dried apricots, and a fig jam round out the savory cheese with some sweetness.

On the board on the right, I went for a simple presentation of Vermont Creamery’s Bonne Bouche, an ash-ripened goat cheese, French Pont-l’Évêque (bottom left), and Italy’s La Tur, a goat, cow, and sheep milk brie that is nothing short of amazing at just about any stage of ripeness. As you can see, I like sweet on Sunday mornings, and avoid nuts and meats. Like all food, that is entirely a matter of taste.

These places just scratch the surface of cheese boards to be found in the So Cal area. With breweries like Stone and Taps regularly carrying artisan cheese on their menu, the proliferation of gastropubs and wine-tasting shops offering cheese boards, and of course, the slow growth of cheese-centric shops in  So Cal, I hope to see more cheese on menus in the region. It fits in well with the tasting ethos sweeping the food and beverage scene.