Few holidays are as food-focused as Thanksgiving, and that’s one reason we love it. Another reason we wait excitedly the whole year for T-Day is that it’s all about hitting pause, taking stock, and sharing gratitude. Sure, we love Turkey and pumpkin pie as much as the next guy, but it’s the time spent with family and friends—cooking, talking, and taking stock of our lives—that makes this meal a once-in-a-year experience. Without the ritual and meaning of Thanksgiving, it’s really just a huge dinner, right?
The same is true with cheese. Recently it was suggested that the only way to avoid dropping major coin on a platter is to blindly pluck a wedge of Camembert from a supermarket cold case, bake it for a few minutes, and then plop it on a plate beside some grapes and olives. We’re certainly not knocking those pairings—and who doesn’t love warm, gooey cheese? But there’s so much more you can do without breaking the bank. And just like a holiday meal tastes better because of the history behind it, a cheese tastes better when you know its story.
With that in mind, we’ve put together a delicious cheese board that’s easy on wallet without skimping on quality, flavor, or intrigue. Now, this is just one way to do it; your options know no limits, and we’re always here to help you navigate that bounty. We will say that there’s one primary rule of thumb, and it’s a good one: the name of the game is variety. What you want is a range of flavors and textures, meant to entice and delight the senses. We happen to think this is a pretty solid guide for food in general. Imagine your Thanksgiving dinner plate: you’re probably not eating turkey with a side of roast chicken, or mashed potatoes with a fistful of french fries (though if that’s your jam, don’t let us get in the way.) Same goes for a cheese board—a good one will demonstrate cheese in its wonderfully wide-ranging glory.
And so, without further ado: a selection of beautiful cheeses that will contribute to the edible (and otherwise) bounty of your Thanksgiving table, without burning a hole in your wallet.
At Murray’s, we like to work in order from mild to wild, so let’s start with this here Camembert. We have nothing but love for this Frenchie, and it’s been in the game for quite some time. In 1797, a woman named Marie Harel was living in the village of Camembert when, according to legend, a priest from Brie gave her the recipe for his region’s famed fromage. She took it, made it her own, and Camembert cheese was born. If Brie is the popular kid at school, Camembert is its younger sibling with artsy tendencies and more personality. Both are pudgy and gooey under their tender, downy rinds. Where Brie can be decidedly mild, Camembert is a bit more pungent, with a buttery, toasty, ever so lactic quality that guests often find themselves coming back to again and again. It’s sturdy enough for baking, if you so desire, but it’s just as much of a crowd-pleaser when you let the cheese stand alone. ($10.99/8 oz. wheel)
What you might notice first about Manchego is that lovely criss-crossy pattern on the rind. This is a nod to tradition—for centuries, the cheese was formed in baskets made of esparto grass, which would imprint a woven pattern onto the outside of the cheese, then forming into the rind. It is every bit an essential characteristic of this sheep’s cheese as its semi-firm texture and nutty flavor, which provide complementary contrast to your smooshier, creamier Camembert. ($8.99/8 oz.)
And now for some wildin’. Like with many cheeses named for their place of production, Stilton must be made according to a strict set of rules. Among those rules: the cheese must be unpressed, cylindrical in shape, and feature a naturally formed rind. Oh, also, it has to, well, taste like a Stilton. Which is to say: thick and fudgy, with a velvety crumble and a mineral tang. A proper Stilton like this one will sport an ivory-colored paste and a network of blue-green veining that imparts a piquant yet sweet pepperiness. It’s a textbook example of a punch-packing party cheese—big and bold while still being easy to enjoy. ($11.50/8 oz.)
Now that you’ve got your cheese selection covered, let’s talk about dressing your plate. Maybe you’re a chutney person, or perhaps you’re partial to roasted nuts. It’s all a matter of preference. One sure thing is that it’s always a good idea to have a vessel for the cheese. Around here, we are particularly fond of Jan’s Farmhouse Crisps, which have a seed-studded whole grain flavor that works with all three of the above cheeses. For a sweet, fruity counterpoint, membrillo is always a fave. It’s dense and chewy and a little sticky, but it has the rich, deep flavor of cooked quince with a light tang from a touch of lemon juice. Lay some on a cracker, top it with cheese, and you’ve got a flavor combo that’ll win any party. (Jan’s: $9.99; Membrillo: $7.99)
So there you have it, a whopping cheese plate that’ll keep costs in check while sparing no expense in the flavor department. As we said, this is just one of any number of combos. If you decide to create your own, here’s what we suggest: go visit your local cheesemonger. Think of him or her as your personal tour guide. In the same way you get more out of a trip to a museum or an historic landmark when you have an expert by your side, you’ll get a lot more out of your time in the Land of Cheese when you have someone walking you through the context of what you are encountering. This is one of the many reasons we’re so excited to have Murray’s counters across the country. Even if you would’ve grabbed the same cheeses on your own, your guests will enjoy them all the more when you include them in the ritual and heritage behind what they are eating. That, after all, is the spirit of a holiday meal.
Happy Thanksgiving, Cheesers!