There aren't many things more tempting than a buttery French brie slathered on a slice of baguette. Or an intensely pungent, veiny blue crumbled on top of my salad. No, make that a dry, sharp Parmigiano-Reggiano grated on top my pasta or soup. Or, say, an aged cheddar that's so sharp it tastes peppery on the tongue. Mayhaps a mild Swiss, with its smooth bite and nutty-sweet taste? I could go on and on.
It's why I'd take a cheese plate over dessert any day. In part, that's because cheese isn't just delicious, it's stunningly diverse. To me, cheese has always been about discovery. Discovering new textures, new flavors, and new pairings. It's also one of the easiest ways to taste your way around the world in one sitting. Between a beautiful presentation, thoughtful condiment pairings, and a smattering of sliced fruit, nuts, and cornichons, a well-curated cheese plate can transform cheese into an experience.
A great condiment pairing is a perfect place to start. Condiments can elevate the flavor of a cheese by contrasting its saltiness with some sugar, bringing out unexpected notes like grassiness or nuttiness, and adding textural complexity to each mouthful. It can help cut a cheese's richness with acidity or spice, or balance its funk and earthiness with with a touch of sweetness.
But with so many condiment options in your grocery aisle, picking the right jams, mustards, and honeys can be an overwhelming experience. In pursuit of the ultimate DIY cheese plate, I tasted a selection of the most interesting small-batch jams, preserves, flavored honeys, and mustards I could find around the country.
I looked for products with unique or surprising flavors that nail a balance of sweetness, tartness, and acidity. I also considered texture, looking for sturdier spreads that won't slip off your bread, and pourable honeys that won't leave you frustrated and shaking the jar. It's just an added bonus that many of my picks come in jars that are attractive enough to plop right on your cheese board next to its intended cheese partner
Though I offer cheese pairings for each of my favorites below, don't let that stop you from serving them with another cheese that you think would go well. Creative flavor pairings are half the fun when it comes to building your own cheese plate.
Mustard and Co. Garlic Dill Mustard
Best With: Sharp Cheddar or Other Strong, Hard Cheeses
Instead of cooking their mustard down and adding flour to thicken it, Mustard and Co. grinds the seeds to preserve their ultra-spicy horseradishy kick (and use only fresh, pure herbs and spices for flavor variations). This means the mustard is raw and vibrant. I poured mine right out of the bottle onto the bread before piling on cheese. If you're a fan of dill pickles, you'll love this stuff. Pair it with a strongly flavored cheese that will stand up to the intense salty-spicy flavors. Or, if you're looking for something more traditional, go for Sir Kensington's Spicy Brown Mustard, a tangy, sweat-inducing blend of brown and yellow mustard seeds—hot enough to hold its own with a bold cheese—finished with a dash of Vermont maple syrup to take the edge off.
American Spoon Sour Cherry Preserves
Best With: Brie, Camembert, or Mild Swiss
Made with sweet-tart Montmorency cherries from Michigan, American Spoon's sour cherry preserves are so packed with fruit, it's basically like spreading soft, cooked whole cherries onto your bread (held together with a tiny bit of cherry jam). Just the right amount of sweetness balances the mouth-puckering flavor of the cherries—perfect for cutting through creamy, buttery cheeses like brie or playing up the nuttiness of mild swiss. But if cherries aren't your thing, give their apple and onion jam a shot—it's a sweet-savory blend of Michigan Northern Spy apples and caramelized onions scented with thyme and balsamic vinegar. The tartness of the apples and balsamic slices through the richness of gooey cheeses like camembert, while the caramelized onions and thyme tease out the sweet fruitiness of swiss.
Terrapin Ridge Farms Apple & Horseradish Jam
Best With: Manchego, Gouda, or Fontina
Sweet apple jelly gets a kick in the pants with a nice dose of earthy horseradish. Spicy, but not too much of a nose rush, Terrapin Ridge Farm's unusual flavor combo smoothes over the herbaceous, barnyardy notes of sheepy cheeses like manchego. Its sugary-tart apples latch onto the sweet, nutty character of gouda, while the horseradish teases out funky, grassy notes in fontina. It would also be great spooned over cream cheese and served with crackers as a refreshing twist on hot pepper jelly—the acidity from the apples balances the creaminess with a hot finish to shock your senses a little.
Mike's Hot Honey
Best With: Fresh Mozzarella, Burrata, or Ricotta
Infused with chili peppers, this sweet-spicy honey is amazing on practically anything that likes a little sugar and heat—chicken, salad, pizza, cocktails, and marinades. Mike's Hot is also a delicious way to spice up a clean, creamy cheese like fresh burrata or ricotta, contrasting that spicy sweetness with mild, milky cheese. If you're looking for something a little less sweet that still packs a punch, try American Spoon Chili Jam, which is almost like a refined version of sriracha, with a smoky sweetness from Fresno chilies, ginger, and garlic. It cuts the richness of mild milky cheeses without overpowering them.
Happy Girl Kitchen "Da Bears" Lime Marmalade
Best With: Soft Fresh Goat Cheese
"The Marsalisi Brothers called us up and said they had a bumper crop of Bearss Limes and wondered if we could please use some," says Happy Girl Kitchen's San Francisco-based co-founder Jordan Champagne. What are Bearss limes? You might know them as Persian or Tahitian limes. They're seedless, slightly larger than key limes, and lighter in color—sometimes even yellowish—especially as they ripen. Known for their spicy aroma, they're less acidic and bitter than their more common cousins, making for one incredible sweet-not-too-tart-almost-floral citrus marmalade, studded with preserved strips of peel. Tangy, fresh goat cheese strikes a lovely balance with the delicate flavor.
Girl Meets Dirt Shiro Plum With Mint Spoon Preserves
Best With: Blue Cheeses Like Cabrales, Roquefort, Gorgonzola and Stilton
Rich, dark, spicy-sweet-tart Asian plums give these thick preserves a lush, ripe flavor that's brightened with just a bit of fresh mint. It's a great contrast to a pungent blue cheese—the bright flavor matches its saltiness, while its deep, spicy pluminess brings out a touch of sweetness. For a more traditional pairing for your blues, check out their Crab Apple Cutting Preserves, a thick, membrillo-style paste made with Evereste crabapples. Its complex bitter-tart flavor makes blues' funky-sweet notes sing.