For me, nothing. Well, maybe diamonds. Or a purse (Burberry or Coach, please). Or a night without my kid and/or cat waking me up. But cheese makes a fantastic gift this time of year – or anytime, of course. My co-worker Deanna had the fabulous idea of sending cheese baskets to our clients and VIPs this year as our agency holiday gift, and the two of us headed down to Premier Cheese Market this morning to speak with the owner, Ken, about putting together the perfect basket.

Our challenge: assembling a blend of tastes and textures when we don’t know what the recipients would prefer. Unless you’re giving cheese to a close friend or colleague with whom you’ve had in-depth discussions about cheese (other people do this, right?), it’s best to play it safe. Ken’s rules: No blues, no stinkies (a.k.a. washed-rind cheeses, like our friend Epoisses). What’s left? Not to fret – there’s a delicious assortment of cheeses at your disposal.

  • Manchego – Tune in tomorrow for my thoughts on this Spanish sheep’s-milk cheese, but in short, its mild, nutty flavor pleases many palates, including my picky husband’s. If you want to take it to the next level, look for a Manchego with rosemary. Cheesetique stocks it.
  • Gouda – A Lewis and Levine family favorite is the Prima Donna Gouda, also mild and sweet. Excellent for snacking with apples.
  • Cheddar – You all know my feelings about Cheddar. Ken recommends the Prairie Breeze Cheddar, produced by a collective of Amish farmers in Iowa.
  • If you want to go the creamy route, a basic Brie would serve you well. Ken also suggests the double-creme Fromage d’Affinois, which is also a French cow’s-milk cheese but is even silkier. Yum!
  • For the adventuresome willing to tread into goat’s-milk territory, a classic Bucheron is usually well-received since it resembles the chevre found in almost any grocery store these days. Patacabra is a good bet, too.
  • Smoked cheeses “can be challenging,” according to Ken, but they’re not off-limits. His suggestion: go for the higher-end smokies, like Spanish San Simon. It’s very man-friendly.

The thing to remember with cheese baskets: “The cheese stands alone” only applies to the song “The Farmer in the Dell.” Be sure to include a tasty assortment of crackers, dried fruit, nuts, olives, honey and chocolates in your basket. If your budget allows, add a bottle of wine. Ask your cheesemonger for a suggestion that will complement the cheeses you’ve selected.

Of course, if you’re too busy to make it to the cheese shop, there are a number of online options. New York institution Murray’s Cheese offers a variety of gift suggestions on its Web site. I know Colleen’s husband would approve of the Best with Beer package. Artisanal Cheese also has a great selection of cheese gifts – check out the American Artisanal Basket for its unique offerings. I have to give a shout-out to my home state by mentioning The Wisconsin Cheeseman’s gift baskets. I’d love to receive the Cheese Crate!

So take the plunge and go cheesy for the holidays. I bet you a hunk of Humboldt Fog that your friends will like it more than fruitcake.

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