Before you build your board, you have to decide on 3 main factors: the size, the shape, and the material of said board. Is this for date night which needs a simple dinner plate or for Friendsgiving that calls for a slab of (cedar) wood across the length of a long table? I personally like marble or anything that’s got a solid surface. They’re easier to clean, cut on, and they come in snazzy colors and textures. Wood, although photogenic and hipsteresque, can be tedious once you’re scrubbing brie off of it over your sink. A couple of baby spoons, cheese knives, and toothpicks should be enough for serving. You don’t need the fancy cheese-knife sets, the flat knives that come in silverware sets work for most of these soft cheeses. Don’t forget a few mini bowls for the smaller ingredients (olives, nuts, fruit). I like using shafe coffee cups. NONE of these things need to match – it’s okay to get colorful.
Pro-tip: Use a baking sheet or tray as your board. Parchment paper underneath everything also helps make clean-up less of a nightmare.
The Must-Haves: White Klash
Just remember that when you’re at the cheese section of your local market. Most Lebanese cheeses are white, salty, and odorless. The basics would be white/baladi, kashkawan, labneh, akkawi, shanklish, and halloum. You don’t need ALL of these (although one can never have too much cheese) and you can throw in your favorite foreign ones too but I’m staying local in this post. White cheese or jibne bayda/baladi is a classic staple on most breakfast tables between the beid b’awarma and foul so its soft, airy existence has earned a spot. Labneh balls or labneh mkaazaleh are the other permanent fridge resident and the harder preserved style has a bitter flavor that compliments the sweeter ingredients across your board (listed in the groups below). You can go for standard labneh balls soaked in olive oil or opt for those coated in mint, roasted sesame, or zaatar. Akkawi is the cheese commonly found in manoushes, AKA our breakfast pizzas. Shanklish comes in many different mixes so that’s a personal preference but deep-fried breaded versions of it are even more enjoyable with some bubbly. Make sure to drain the halloum and avoid salty varieties in general. Slice away!
Honey & Kariche
Lebanon is rich with locally-sourced honey with rich flavors ranging from forest to orange to lavender. Drizzle some on top of kariche (pronounced “areesheh”) for a creamy, sweet side to dunk a spoon into.
What’s kariche? It’s a variation of ricotta made from the basic white cheese so it’s technically part of the cheese section but I feel it deserves to be set apart from the rest as it’s a personal favorite.
Jams, Dried Fruit, Berries, Nuts
The dry sweetness in these helps offset the fattiness of the cheeses. Some dried apricots and grape berries add lovely colors to your palette/palate.
My teta* would never forgive me if I left out this national pride & joy. I secretly love Italian, Spanish, and Greek olives too but she never needed to know that. There are pitted/stuffed/marinated buckets full found in many shops but I’m a purist and I don’t care much for overly complicating a good thing. Buttermilk doughnuts, buttered popcorn, and vanilla ice cream for this girl. Olives also don’t need extra stuff to be fantastic.
“El jnoub atyab shi,” says teta but anything Lebanese will do.“The South’s (olives) taste best” – Yes, she is obviously from the South
Crackers & Breads
Markouk, tanour, and slices of our adopted French baguette. But honestly, you don’t need more than toasted puffs of pita or khebez 3arabe mhamas for this spread.
• Fried cheese rolls or rkakat – classic or rolled with a slice of basterma, traditional Armenian cured beef
• Stuffed grape leaves – classic or stuffed with bulghari goat cheese and stored in olive oil
• Falafel balls – without the tarator sauce, this is another fried element that would go well with some sparkling. The sweetness of the bubbles is a fun contrast with the oily, fried nuggets.
TO ASSEMBLE THE BOARD
Nothing is permanent but fill your board in groups using the cheeses as the backbone that you work around. Keep in mind how many people you’re feeding but also how they’re sitting around the board so everyone has easy access to all flavors. You can fill in any gaps using cornichons, cherry tomatoes, sprigs of rosemary, or any herb of your choice.
For layout inspiration, check out @cheesebynumbers on Instagram.
*teta: informal Arabic for grandmother
Disclaimer: if you're having a tasting session with friends, try not to eat anything except neutral crackers between wines. Keep that palate fresh!