THEN: My parents’ card club poses at the farmhouse for a photo on New Year’s Eve in front of my mother’s groovy macrame lamp and owl wall hanging in our orange-curtained, fake-wood-paneled, velvet flowered-covered-sofa living room. While I’m pretty sure this picture was taken circa 1986, the ’70s lived on until the house was torn down a few years ago.
When I was a kid, serving a “cheese tray” at the annual New Year’s Eve card club party at our farmhouse in southwest Wisconsin usually meant one of two things:

1. An hour before the party started, my mother unboxed the no-expiration-date-listed, mail-ordered Wisconsin Cheeseman holiday cheese ball, stuck a Santa-handled cheese spreader into it, and told me to put it on the table. Voila! Instant centerpiece.

2. Dad reached past the Velveeta on the second shelf of the fridge for the “good cheese” – a Colby longhorn – and sliced it for me. Then I cut the big circles into shapes of stars, bells and angels, while Mom arranged them on a holiday platter. The best part? Getting to eat the “scraps” the cookie cutters left behind when I thought no one was looking.

Thirty years and more than two dozen Wisconsin artisan cheesemakers later, those days seem far behind me. While I must admit I enjoy a good party cheese ball and slab of Colby as much as the next Wisconsinite card club Euchre player, the good news is that cheesemakers are crafting more original and artisanal cheeses all the time. That means WAY more options for bringing out the “good cheese”, and way more options for assembling a New Year’s Eve card club party cheese tray.

Option 1: The Wisconsin Cheddar Flight
This is perhaps one of the easiest cheese trays to assemble, as all you you need is four differently-aged Cheddars, a package of artisan crackers (such as Potter’s Crackers), and a fruit chutney of your choosing. When serving any cheese tray, I like to include a wedge of the cheese in its original form, along with strips or slices of cut cheese (never cubes), so guests can get an idea of how the cheese originally looked, and then taste it at the same time.

If you’re not too busy making Brandy Old Fashioneds, then try and guide your guests into eating the cheeses in order of least aged to most aged. This lets your palate adjust and appreciate the differences in taste and complexity as the cheese ages. Here’s a sample Cheddar Flight course, arranged in order, from left to right:

  • Two-Year Cheddar from Widmer’s Cheese Cellars in Theresa
  • Six-Year Cheddar from Carr Valley Cheese in LaValle
  • 10-Year Cheddar from Hook’s Cheese in Mineral Point
  • 12- or 15-Year Cheddar from Hook’s (depending on availability)

Even though this is Wisconsin and our natural inclination is to eat every piece of cheese with at least one cracker, see if you can persuade your guests to first try each Cheddar separately, on its own, so they have the opportunity to appreciate the cheese and just the cheese. After the first taste, encourage guests to mix up the tasting with a bit of cracker or chutney, to see how each cheese differs with pairings. If serving wine, consider a Sauvignon Blanc or Cabernet Sauvignon. A wheat beer also pairs well with a flight of Cheddars. And of course, a Brandy Old Fashioned goes well with just about anything.

Option 2: The Wisconsin Farmstead Cheese Tray
Fifteen years ago, arranging this cheese tray would have been impossible, as only a handful of farmstead cheesemakers existed in Wisconsin. Today – lucky for us – more than 20 call America’s Dairyland home. The key to making a Farmstead Cheese Tray meaningful for your guests is knowing the story behind each cheese. You’ll want to know the cheesemaker’s name, the type of milk used, and the location of the creamery. All of this information can be found by asking the folks at your local cheese shop, or by doing a quick Google search. Again, make sure you leave a wedge of each cheese intact on your cheese tray, along with strips or slices for tasting, as farmstead cheeses are often the most eye-appealing cheeses on the market.

A sample Wisconsin farmstead cheese tray might include:

  • Evalon, from LaClare Farms in Chilton (goat’s milk)
  • Marieke Young Gouda, from Holland’s Family Farm in Thorp (cow’s milk)
  • Ocooch Mountain, from Hidden Springs Creamery in Westby (sheep’s milk)
  • Pleasant Ridge Reserve, Extra Aged, from Uplands Cheese in Dodgeville (cow’s milk)

These four cheeses present an excellent cross section of some of the best cheeses made in America, and lucky for us, they’re all crafted by farmstead cheesemakers in Wisconsin. Serve this cheese course with a sliced baguette, honey and fruit – perhaps a few red grapes or strawberries – and let guests mix and match cheese and companions as they wish. I’d recommend serving this course with a crisp white wine, such as a Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, or Riesling. A sparkling wine, such as a Moscato d’Asti, (my favorite) is also fun.

Option 3: The Wisconsin Adventure Cheese Tray
Sometimes the best cheese courses are the ones that represent different categories – such as a soft, semi-hard, hard, and blue. This type of course can be the most difficult to assemble, as multiple pairings may be necessary. To make it as easy as possible, consider this combination, which involves four cheeses, one type of cracker, a bit of honey and pear:

  • Driftless, from Hidden Springs Creamery in Westby (sheep’s milk)
  • Gran Canaria, from Carr Valley Cheese in LaValle (sheep, goat & cow’s milk)
  • Mona, from the Wisconsin Sheep Dairy Cooperative and made at Cedar Grove Cheese in Plain (cow & sheep’s milk)
  • Buttermilk Blue, from Emmi Roth USA in Monroe (cow’s milk)

Start with the Driftless, as this fresh, soft and fluffy sheep’s milk cheese is a natural starter for a cheese course. Pre-spread on a Hazelnut Graham Potter’s Cracker for guests, as they may be unfamiliar as to how to go about eating a fresh cheese. Then move on to the Gran Canaria. This olive oil-cured specialty is fruity, nutty, intense, sweet and pungent all at the same time. It should go well with a bit of pear. Next, try the Mona. This mixed milk cheese is made from cow and sheep milk and is mild and pleasant, and provides a nice balance between the soft and blue cheeses on this tray. End with Buttermilk Blue. Serve with a drizzle of honey, Hazelnut Graham Potter’s Cracker and slice of pear. This sweet blue is a nice ending to an adventurous cheese tray.

No matter which cheeses you choose, a cheese tray is the perfect addition to a party, as it not only provides amazing tasting cheese, but is a great conversation piece. Mix and match your favorites, and encourage your guests to do the same. It’s hard to go wrong with cheese, especially on New Year’s Eve. Happy New Year!

NOW: A 2012 Wisconsin artisan cheese tray, made possible by dozens of amazing cheesemakers who today call Wisconsin home. Five cheeses, a baguette, a few nuts, Potter’s Crackers and chutney. Throw in a card game and voila – instant party.

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