When I see a wheel of Harbison at a holiday party, I think: This person knows how to host. Then I plant myself as close to the cheese as is socially acceptable and acquaint myself with it and, ideally, any thick-cut potato chips available for dipping. Often, the cheese stands alone — with sides, but not a lot of other cheeses.
Made by Vermont’s Jasper Hill Farm, Harbison is a bloomy rind cheese, a category that also includes Brie. Wrapped with spruce and aged, it’s pudding-like in texture and umami-rich and woodsy in flavor. It’s best served at room temperature with its top sliced off to expose its soft insides, which are perfect for scooping with bread, chips, and even fries. It’s a head-turner, like a baked Brie but not quite as basic, and it forms the crux of my fancied-up holiday hosting thesis: Everyone makes a cheese board, but more people should serve a single, showstopper cheese.
As much as I love cheese boards — and I do, with all the zeal of a person who has not, knock on wood, needed Lactaid — the growing complexity of cheese boards has given me fromage fatigue. Grazing tables, with their ever-increasing gluttony, make my eyes glaze over and my hand clutch my wallet. You want me to buy all that in this economy? I’d also argue that when there’s too much of everything, we, as eaters, tend to appreciate each component less. So if maximalism and minimalism happen in cycles, each a response to the other, perhaps we’re due for a more streamlined approach to cheese.
Another showstopper that both supports my thesis and is especially fitting for this time of year is Rush Creek Reserve from the Wisconsin-based Uplands Cheese. Like Harbison, it’s spruce-wrapped and aged and meant to be served with its top cut off. It’s also produced only in the fall, which draws on the tradition of Switzerland’s seasonal Vacherin Mont d’Or. Similar to Rush Creek is Greensward, which is made in partnership by Jasper Hill Farm and New York City’s Murray’s Cheese and washed in hard cider as it ages.
Clearly, I’m identifying a type here, but the concept of the holiday-worthy showstopper cheese extends beyond pudgy-centered, spruce-wrapped bloomy rinds: Instead of lots of little cheeses, each vying for your attention, try a single wedge or wheel that steals the show. Who wouldn’t love to chip hunks off a big block of parm?
These wheels can admittedly be pricey. A wheel of Harbison generally clocks in at around $25, while Rush Creek Reserve is $37. But it helps to remember that in paying for one big wheel of cheese, you’re not paying for a bunch of smaller cheeses for your spread, which has a way of adding up. And if there’s anything I took away from my time working at a cheese magazine, it’s this: From a production, impact, and quality standpoint, it’s worth it to eat less but better cheese. By “better,” I mean cheese that not only tastes richer and more flavorful but also supports small producers who are keeping cheesemaking traditions alive. These showstopper cheeses check those boxes — and also happen to be good enough that they don’t need so many distractions.
Dina Ávila is a photographer in Portland, Oregon.
Photo assistant: Eric Fortier