MIX BASIC AND QUIRKY FLAVORS AND TEXTURES
Give guests cheesy adjectives (e.g., stinky, earthy) and have each person bring a type that represents it. In addition to different textures, choose cheeses from different countries or made from different types of milk. For a tray that feeds three or four people, pick one cheese that's creamy (goat cheese, brie, camembert, port-salut or fontina) , one that's firm (cheddar, gruyère, parmigiano-reggiano) and one that's a wild card (blue cheese, manchego, pecorino or something local). For a spread that serves five to eight, throw together a combo of five or six cheeses that includes picks across the categories.
COLD, PRECUT CUBES ARE TASTELESS.
To maximize flavor: Take cheeses out of the fridge 45 minutes beforehand, leaving them wrapped until ready to serve.
DON'T LEAVE GUESTS IN THE DARK.
Label each cheese by name, milk variety and country of origin. That way, guests know exactly what they're eating (e.g., pecorino: sheep's-milk cheese, Italy).
NO NEED TO BUST OUT FANCY UTENSILS.
All that's required is a small butter knife for each cheese. Cut a few pieces of each (wedges for rounds, slices for everything else) to get guests started. Soft cheeses, such as goat cheese and fresh mozzarella, get squashed when you cut them with a knife. You can buy expensive cheese cutters, but you may have solutions lying around. Our favorites include picture-hanging wire, fishing line and dental floss (unflavored, of course). Perk: There's no cleanup?they're all disposable.
(and calm stage fright). Ask everyone to share their top cheese/snack/wine combos. At the end of the night, give guests hunks of their favorites for next-day fondue.
CHEESE GONE BAD?
Don't fear if hard cheese has molded in spots. Just slice off an inch past the questionable bits. If the whole piece is past its prime (or if it's a soft cheese), toss everything but the rind, especially from hard cheeses like parmesan, pecorino or gruyere. Simmer these rinds in soups or stews when you want an extra burst of flavor.
AND, SUPPORTING PLAYERS...
Fruit, which amplifies cheese's sweetness, is a must. Go for dried (cranberries, dates, cherries or figs), fresh (sliced apples, pears, plums, apricots or melon) or both. Crusty bread or crackers are staples, too, but pick ones that aren't too salty or spicy. They'll overpower the cheeses. If you want to go one step further, pick up cheese's salty notes with olives, and put out sweet or spicy fruit chutneys, toasted nuts, or cured meats like salami and prosciutto. And for the finishing touch? Honey.