The First Course
The Cheese Cart
By Eugene Wright
The great 18th century French gastronomist, Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, once quipped, "A dinner that ends without cheese is like a beautiful woman with only one eye." Apologies to those with a fetish for piratical patches, but his un-PC point remains apt: a great dinner seems incomplete without an assortment of hard, soft, creamy, sharp, blue-flecked, rinded, moldy, smelly, curdled fromages.
In many fine restaurants, the cheese course has become the most anticipated part of the meal. "In higher-end restaurants it is expected," says chef Terrance Brennan, owner of New York's Picholine, Artisanal and Terrance Brennan's Seafood & Chop House.
"People are fascinated with the nuances of cheese," says Brennan, "and it's not intimidating. They are willing to try adventurous varieties. Mostly the cheese course is served communally. We find the experience extends the evening a bit more for dinner guests because it's fun."
Of course, this is hardly front-page news elsewhere around the globe. Max McCalman, maître fromager with Brennan's Artisanal group, a font of trivia, notes that cheese was discovered---presumably unmummified ---in an Egyptian First Dynasty pharaoh's 5,000-year old tomb. Most countries have long implemented strict standards, similar to wine appellations, regarding origin, grazing lands, climate, and production methods. While the three primary cheese categories are cow's milk, sheep's milk, and goat's milk, different cultures utilize indigenous mammals from camels to yaks.
Fortunately, you needn't dine out to savor cheese: home entertaining is sophisticated yet surprisingly simple. Here are some handy A (nutty young Italian Asiago) to Z (Spain's sharp yet lush Zamorano) tips.
- Take cheeses out of the refrigerator, unwrap them (avoid shrink wrapping when possible, or the cheese develops a complex) and let them reach room temperature before serving.
- Use a marble or granite board or, in a pinch, a basic wood cutting block or board.
- Provide sharp-edged knives for hard cheese and rounded-edge for softer varieties.
- For casual gatherings, set one cheese board in the middle of the table, allowing guests to make their own selections.
- For more formal occasions, offer each guest a single plate containing individual cheese samples.
- Arrange cheese from the mildest to the strongest flavor (start with a fresh creamy Brie, seque to a headier Gruyère, climaxing with, say, Gorgonzola).
- Aim for variety in texture, taste and appearance. Contrast creamy with firm. Please the eye with different colors and shapes.
- Limit selection to four cheeses, otherwise your guests' palates will rebel.
- Offer cheeses from a variety of sources---a cow's-milk, a goat's-milk and a sheep's-milk cheese. But it also can be enlightening to compare similar cheeses from different countries (English and American Cheddars, for instance) or cheeses of varying age (a fresh chèvre and an aged goat's-milk crottin).
- Consider offering guests one perfect cheese with a complementary accompaniment, perhaps aged Vermont Cheddar with chutney or goat cheese with toasted walnuts and honey.
- Grapes, pears and apples are natural companions in fall and winter. Serve apricots and cherries in late spring, figs in summer.
Given the proliferation of choices, wine pairings can be a headache, recalling former French president Charles de Gaulle's famous lament, "How can one govern a country that has 246 kinds of cheese?" (Today, that number has nearly doubled.) Experimentation yields Trading Spaces results, from sheer delight to shell (or palate) shock. For example, a full-bodied, chewy Napa Cabernet can overpower an intense Maytag Blue or aged Parmesan, which in turn will decimate an elegant red
Burgundy. On the other hand, some matches have proved eternal: fresh goat cheese with Sauvignon Blanc (tang meets tangier) or Roquefort with Sauternes (aged salt tamed by unctuous honey). If you serve only one wine with your cheese sampler, consider an uncomplicated white such as an Alsatian Pinot Blanc or Loire Valley Vouvray. Conversely, avoid too light a wine with your cheeses.
Follow these basics and you'll agree with Clifton Fadiman, the acerbic 1950s New Yorker book reviewer: "A cheese may disappoint. It may be dull, it may be naive, it may be over-sophisticated. Yet it remains, cheese, milk's leap toward immortality."
Staff book, guide, and website picks:
Eugene Wright has been a journalist for 25 years and covered food trends for 15 years. His preferences for wine and cheese -- at the moment -- are Viognier paired with Gouda and Sangiovese or Tempranillo served
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