No, it’s not art. It’s a cheese board, and it’s meant to be consumed down to the last pistachio. Cheese artiste Lilith Spencer creates these edible dreamscapes for Cheesemongers of Santa Fe, the year-old store where she works. Wowza. Looks like we’re all going to have to up our game.
The 26-year-old Spencer just won the Cheesemonger Invitational, an annual competition that involves demonstrating skill in selling, cutting, merchandising, wrapping and pairing cheese. Spencer clearly performed well enough in all those realms, but her presentation skills are over the top. It’s a safe bet that cheesemongers everywhere are scrutinizing her platters for ideas.
After college, where she designed a double major in cheese making and music composition, Spencer went to work at BKLYN Larder in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood. “I wanted to work in a fast-paced environment with super-high standards, and I thought New York was the place to do that,” she told me. “I wasn’t wrong. You have wonderful regular customers but also crazy New Yorkers who want unreasonable things.”
Her platters there were minimalist. “In Park Slope, it seems like everyone’s allergic to something or avoiding something,” recalls Spencer. “You literally can only put cheese on a platter because someone will be upset about an olive or nut touching something else.” Moving to Santa Fe liberated her. No rules, the shop owners told her. Just make the boards beautiful.
On a slow day, she might spend 90 minutes on a composition, although she can whip out a beauty in 15 minutes (see image below). Georgia O’Keeffe’s explosive colors inspire her, but Spencer’s paints are fruits and vegetables, often from the Santa Fe farmers’ market. Wanna try this at home? Spencer shares some pointers:
- Help guests grasp what goes with what by creating little vignettes—quince paste near the Manchego, for example. Spencer calls them “implied pairings.”
- You might be tempted to start in the center and work out, but Spencer doesn’t. She places big items first, like large wedges, whole soft cheeses or bunches of grapes. Big shapes make good props that you can lean other components against. Use nuts and olives to fill in the gaps.
- Crumble hard cheeses, like aged Gouda and Cheddar, rather than cutting them. They’re inclined to splinter anyway, so let them. Note how she nestles the nuggets inside a “wall” of cheese rind.
- Offer savory complements in addition to sweet. “My palate gets tired of jams and honeys,” says Spencer. Think tapenade, sun-dried tomatoes, pickled okra.
- “Fresh vegetables are huge for me on a cheese platter,” says Spencer. “I don’t think they’re used enough. It’s nice to have something crunchy that isn’t a cracker or nuts.” Watermelon radishes and purple radishes lend gemstone colors. In summer, Santa Fe’s famous roasted ‘Hatch’ chiles add a sense of place.
Halved peaches nestle against dried dates on these bountiful boards. Persimmons, figs and oranges glisten. I wondered how it felt to relinquish such personal creations, knowing they would soon be history?
“It’s a little cathartic,” admitted Spencer. “I’m sort of a perfectionist but I can’t get hung up on the details because there’s not time and it’s not permanent. For all I know, the second they put it in their car it gets jostled around. I can’t get too crazy about it. It’s just food.”