We hosted a remote cheese tasting for a milestone anniversary recently. It was such fun.  Consider hosting your own as you plan a gathering with family or friends this holiday season. A remote cheese tasting can be simple or extravagant. You can do the work for your guests or let them take part in selecting and provisioning.  And you’re contributing to a worthy cause. Globally, artisan cheese makers are suffering along with myriad businesses that are supported by restaurants during this COVID-19 crisis. (Read more about Victory Cheese, a movement to help American cheese makers below this article.)

For our event I ordered four types of cheese for each of our guests.  I made the bread and delivered the cheese to them. They set up their own tasting trays. They sliced the bread and opened their choice of wine.  And we signed onto Zoom at the appointed time – in black tie of course.

Here are my tips on how to host a cheese tasting.

Create Your Guest List

A small gathering allows the conversation to flow, at least that’s been my experience. Based on teaching online and attending online meetings, webinars and conferences all year, 4 to 6 parties makes the most sense to me. That is 4 to 6 blocks on the screen. You know your own tolerance. Plus consider the expense of what you will be offering your guests.

Schedule the date right away. And send the invite right away.  This gives people plenty of time to get organized electronically.  Even nine months into this new way of living, many friends still find signing on to Zoom, Facetime, WebEx or what have you a hassle.

Select the Cheese

Choosing which cheese to serve is the most fun.  You can use the cheese selection as an excuse to do a mini tasting on your own before your party. I recommend four types of cheese.  We like one hard cheese, one washed-rind cheese, a blue cheese and a wild card pick. We like strong-flavored washed rind cheeses such as époisses as well as milder creamy goat’s cheese. Compté, the nutty cousin of gruyère is another we often feature.

Consult your cheese monger for what is in season and at its peak.  We are fortunate to have two excellent cheese purveyors within a short drive from our house. Ask them for suggestions. Use one of your favorites as a starting point in your tasting.

Explain to the cheese monger what you are doing.  “I would like 4 types of cheese packaged for 4 different households. We are having a remote cheese tasting and I need enough cheese for each of my 3 guests and me to have the same things to enjoy together.”

This communication really helps you purchase exactly what is needed.

Find a Theme

A theme makes experiencing the sampler more fun. It might be goat’s cheese, which comes in an astonishing array of styles, or prize-winning American cheese.  Have family from Wisconsin, the Cheese State? Maybe you want to order some of their specialties. There are American classics such as Maytag Blue from Iowa or Vella Dry Jack Cheese from California that could ground your assortment.

Maytag Blue Cheese(This wheel of Maytag Blue cheese arrived the day after this post, a holiday gift from a friend.  Guess there’s another cheese tasting in our future.)

Just plan ahead; give yourself enough time if a cheese needs to be mail ordered. And set your budget too. A quality selection of artisan cheese, 6 to 8 ounces of each of fours kinds of cheese per couple will cost from $25 to $60.

For our party, we wanted New England artisan cheeses and two imported favorites. We featured the following in our sampler:

Harbison Jasper Hill Farm in Vermont.  The washed rind cheese is wrapped in a band of spruce, which delicately flavors the spoonable cheese.

Époisses, a washed-rind Burgundian cow’s milk cheese, creamy and pungent, at its peak through December. It comes in whole or demi wheels, which we chose as shown here.

Epoisses and Harbeson

Arethusa Blue Cheese from Litchfield, Connecticut. This creamy blue reminds me of Stilton.

Arethusa Blue Cheese

-Compté, more properly known as Gruyère de Comté. Like its better-known Swiss cousin, compté is made from cow’s milk using the same processes.  But compté is aged for up to 12 months to develop its rich nutty and buttery notes.  Swiss gruyyère is usually aged for just 3 months.

Compte de gruyere cheese

Spring Brook Farm Tarentaise would be a good fit here too. From Vermont, the cows milk cheese is aged 9 to 12 months to develop that kind of nutty buttery flavor we adore.

Select the Accompaniments

What to serve with cheese to make it an occasion?  Bread of course.  I make baguettes for mild cheeses; you do not want any strong flavors to mar the taste of delicate cheese.  And some people just prefer plain bread or crackers with their cheese.  Pungent washed-rind and blue cheese stand up to hearty flavorful breads, hence my preference for the whole grain sourdough. Wedges of flatbread are good as are mildly sweet biscuits such as Effie’s, a favorite.  Or these Ginger Whole Meal Biscuits that I often eat with cheddar cheese. (Fiscalini Banded Cheddar, Grafton Clothbound Cheddar and Shelburne Farms are all favorites in that category.)

Honey, mostarda and preserves made for cheese are perfect to serve here as are dried apricots, toasted almonds and hazelnuts and a few slices of cured meat. It helps make a meal from a cheese course.  You taste each cheese.  Nibble a little with a sip of wine. Go back and forth then try each cheese with a condiment.  (When we offer cheese after a meal in our house, we do not offer sweet accompaniments.) Rose hip jam, pickled walnuts, a dark chutney, raw acacia honey, so many choices here. This is something to bring up with your cheese monger, who may have tiny jars you can purchase for each guest.

Wines, beers and beverages, have fun with this.  Consult the cheese shop for suggestions or your local wine merchant. A local beer for a cheddar tasting would be relaxed fun. I like both white and red wines with cheese. We asked our friends to provide their own spirits.  If I had included wines, I would have sought out half bottles, one white (Vigionier or Pinot Gris) and one red (Pinot Noir, Rioja or Brunello.) But gad, there are so many choices.

Make the Delivery

When having a remote party with local friends, delivery is easy. Gather all the parts. (You can arrange to pick up the cheese from your cheese shop on your way out with the deliveries.)  You’ll want to make sure to do this the day before your party. Get yourself some new shopping bags into which you’ll pack the cargo. Get as fussy as you like; include cocktail napkins and blank notebooks for tasting notes if your going all-school on the tasting idea. Suggest how they should set up their tasting plate if you need to.

Have Fun

Find some comfy chairs near a table. Make sure your bottle(s) of wine are nearby. Cheese plate, napkins, knives, spoons, breads, crackers, fruit. Check your camera angle; sitting a little back from the camera looking straight into it or slightly up is preferable. (Jowl shots of eating bread and cheese is not pretty.)

Zoom Cheese Party screens

Start the party 10 minutes early.  You may be the only one there, but the extra effort may help newbies.


Kitchen Notebook

How many ways are there to buy cheese?  Let’s count a few of them.

Friends living near me in Connecticut have several great shops that sell quality artisan products, the Cheese Shop of Centerbrook, Fromage of Old Saybrook, the Madison Cheese Shop in Madison and Liuzzi in North Haven. Run by experienced cheese experts, these shops offer the best available.  Fromage has a vast assortment of crackers, condiments and anything you’d need for a tasting, except wine and spirits. Liuzzi makes its own ricotta, burrata and mozzarella.

Victory Cheese is an initiative to help support American cheese makers struggling with loss of business this year. Purchasing through their program donates actual cash to help support American artisan cheese makers. You can find a list of cheese mongers participating in the project on their web site.

In Connecticut, the owners of Fairfield Cheese Company established Cheesemongerbox. It is a subscription services for a single box or monthly delivery of cheeses. 10% proceeds from these boxes go to the Victory Cheese project. A cheese box is a simple way to procure cheeses for your remote tasting.

Artisanal Cheese made a name for itself by creating monthly cheese tasting kits.  (For more than 10 glorious, waistline-expanding years, I was a recipient.) Each delivery comes with professionally cut and wrapped cheese, tasting notes and small tags to place in each on for easy identification.