Shopping for cheese can be as much fun as serving it to guests.
The first rule is know your cheese, according to the Culinary Institute of America. And while experts differ on the specifics, "Garde Manger: The Art and Craft of the Cold Kitchen" (Wiley) offers up these basic categories: fresh, rind-ripened, semisoft, blue, hard and very hard.
* Fresh cheeses are uncooked and unripened and have a creamy flavor and soft texture. These cheeses are typically the most perishable and are sometimes kept in brine to preserve their freshness. Examples of soft fresh cheeses include cottage cheese, queso blanco, cream cheese and homemade lemon cheese.
* Rind-ripened cheeses are typically sprayed or dusted with a mold to promote ripening. Two of the most popular are Brie and Camembert. Soft-ripened cheeses are available in varying degrees of richness and may be labeled as single, double and triple creams, indicating their fat content.
* Semisoft cheeses include a wide variety, ranging from mild and buttery to pungent and aromatic with Limburger, its American counterpart Liederkranz, Muenster, Bel Paese and Havarti, among them. Some, such as Gouda and Edam are sealed in wax before the aging process begins. These cheeses are sometimes flavored or smoked and are sold in mild and aged varieties.
* Blue cheeses are injected with a mold, then salted or brined and allowed to ripen in caves or in cave-like conditions. French Roquefort, Italian Gorgonzola, English Stilton and American Maytag Blue are among the most famous.
* There is a wide variety of hard cheeses produced around the world. Cheddars (including Monterey Jack, Colby and Longhorn) and Swiss-style cheeses (Gruyere, Emmental, Beaufort and Jarlsberg) are among the best known.
* Very hard, or grating, cheeses are known in Italy as granas. The most popular of these cheeses are Romano and Parmesan. Parmigiano Reggiano, the most prized Parmesan cheese, is often referred to as the king of cheeses. Many believe that the formula for this cheese has not changed in more than 700 years, and that its origins date back even further.
A tip when making your selection: Look for cheeses that are neatly sliced and wrapped, with appropriate signs of aging and ripeness. Some cheeses may be highly aromatic, even pungent, but they should not smell strongly of ammonia; that indicates that the cheese is well past its prime. There should be no signs of drying or cracking, evidence the cheese has not been handled properly.
Once you've made your purchase, wrap the cheeses well and refrigerate. Fresh soft cheeses can last under home-storage conditions for three or four days. Semisoft, hard and blue cheeses can last about two weeks.
To serve, arrange the cheese and let it come to room temperature for about one to two hours to bring out the fullest flavor. A cheese board is a traditional way to present cheese. Line the board decoratively with clean leaves.
Serving platters, mirrors or marble pieces are also effective ways to present cheese.
If you are serving cheeses in blocks, provide knives. Use small tongs or forks for sliced cheeses.
Bread and crackers go well with cheese. They can be subtly flavored, or they may add some kick of their own. Sourdough, country-style or peasant breads, rye, pumpernickel or crackers from strongly flavored grains such as rye or whole wheat or those with added flavors, including seeds, spices, peppercorns and cheese, can all be effective.
Add some fresh and dried fruits and nuts, both for appearance and the refreshing counterpoint they add to the cheese experience.
Wine, beer and cider also make great partners for cheese. Classic examples of taste pairing include apples and cheddar with hard cider, or pears and blue cheese and walnuts with port.
Select the accompaniments with the same care you did the cheese.