Imagine you’ve invited a few friends in for dinner, and you’re all gathered around the table. You’ve just finished your main course, and everyone is relaxed, sipping on the last of the wine. “If only this wonderful time could last longer,” you think. At our house, we’ve found the perfect way to do this — by serving a cheese course after dinner. As we savor the cheese, our guests sit back and conversation flows. Many times, we’ve been startled from this dreamy state, only to find that an hour or two has slipped away.
“But what exactly is a cheese course?” In our work for the Oakville Grocery in California, we find that many people ask this question. A cheese course can be as simple as one great cheese for guests to nibble on at their leisure after dinner, or it can be a carefully considered platter of selected cheeses, showcasing a variety of textures and flavors — for instance, a semisoft cheese like Camembert, a hard cheese like aged Dry Monterey Jack, and a blue cheese like Gorgonzola.
In Europe, cheese is a natural follow-up to meals. The cheese is usually served at the dinner table with some good bread, and if no dessert is planned after the cheese course, ripe or dried fruits, nuts, or other accompaniments might be offered with the cheese. Sometimes cheese is served as a partner to a leafy salad.
You’ve probably noticed that many American restaurants have picked up on this European custom, largely because American chefs are anxious to show off the excellent variety of artisanal cheeses now being made here. There’s no reason you can’t do the same thing.
Planning a cheese course is easy, and it’s a great excuse for taste-testing. Nothing could be simpler or more satisfying than serving a cheese course — there are no formal rules. We offer some guidelines here for buying and presenting cheese, but the best piece of advice we can offer is to try as many different cheeses as you can to learn about the incredibly delicious varieties being made today. Once you figure out what you like and what you’d like to share with your friends, you can narrow your choices to three or four for a particular cheese course. (Any more than five at a time is a little overwhelming to the palate.) To help you get a good idea of the various flavors and textures, see the Cheese selection chart — it’s based on the hundreds of cheeses we’re lucky enough to taste every year.
Serve cheese at room temperature. Once you’ve decided what you’ll serve for your cheese course, the only real rule you should remember is to bring cheese to room temperature before serving it. Cheese that’s just been removed from the refrigerator has only a fraction of the flavor of cheese that has been tempered. For a cheese course, this is convenient, because you can take the cheese out of the refrigerator, arrange it as you’d like to serve it, and loosely cover it, all before dinner. Let the cheese breathe by removing all wrappings and by covering the tray loosely with cheesecloth, a dishtowel, or a glass cheese bell.
Choose open, accessible cheese platters. When deciding what type of serving platter to use for a cheese course, consider how many guests you have. If your numbers (and table) are small, one good platter should be fine as long as it isn’t too heavy to pass. Cake plates and wooden boards work well, too. Line the tray with fresh fig, grape, or lemon leaves, or a straw mat, if you wish. If you have a lot of guests, make up two cheese platters, or put each cheese on a different plate. Just be sure to leave room around each cheese so it can be cut comfortably. Provide each guest with a salad or bread plate to put the cheese on as it comes around.
You don’t need special knives for a cheese course. While cheese knives with a variety of blades and decorative handles are available, you probably have what you need in your kitchen drawers. You’ll want to provide a small knife for each cheese with a different texture — a sharp knife for semihard or hard cheeses and a spreading or butter-type knife for each softer, messier cheese. Start a few cuts or slices in each piece by following the natural lines of the cheese or by cutting a small wedge out of a wheel of cheese. If you’re not sure how to cut a certain shape, or if you want suggestions on which rinds to eat and which to trim, ask your cheese merchant.
Skip crackers and serve cheese with a good loaf of bread. Although many of us grew up on “cheese and crackers,” the proliferation of excellent fresh-baked breads in many parts of the country allows many more options for cheese lovers. We’re fond of dense breads studded with nuts and dried fruit to pair with cheese. Any sort of fresh bread, though, is preferable, in our minds, to crackers. The yeasty overtones of bread blend nicely with the many complex flavors of cheese.
Round out cheese platters with your own creative ideas. The incorrigible food stylists among us can have a ball arranging cheese platters, since cheese is a gorgeous, tempting, delectable food, but remember, too, that cheese doesn’t have to be embellished. While olives, cornichons, chutneys, dried and fresh fruits, and toasted nuts complement most cheeses, they aren’t necessary. Consider how substantial the rest of your meal will be before designing your cheese platter. If you’ve had a fairly light main course, you can round out your cheese selection with accompaniments.
What you serve with a cheese should highlight its best qualities. Often the best way to do this is with flavor and texture contrasts. For instance, the salty-sweet contrast of a good blue cheese with fresh figs is magical. Slices of crisp, tart apple give a textural kick to creamy Brie. Also consider the season when choosing accompaniments. For instance, in fall and winter, California aged Dry Jack is a special treat with fresh pears and toasted walnuts. And the region a cheese is from — and sometimes its history — will offer good clues for natural pairings: a Spanish cheese like Manchego is terrific with Spanish olives or almonds and sherry. The well-travelled British discovered that their own farmhouse Cheddar was a great match with Indian chutney, and the pairing of port and Stilton is legendary.
Sometimes the best way to highlight a cheese is to serve it with a salad. We often like to introduce our friends to one very special cheese by serving a little bit of it with a simple green salad. For instance, we recently served a salad of fresh baby greens with a hazelnut dressing and a few slices of nutty Comté.
As an alternative to the cheese platter, you can plate individual servings of cheese. If you’d like to make your cheese course a bit more formal, you can cut servings of cheese in the kitchen and design a small plate for each guest. For instance, we like to cut a small wedge of piquant mountain Gorgonzola for each guest, drizzle the cheese with a little honey, and toss a few toasted walnuts over it. We pass a crusty baguette around the table with this. Sometimes, though, the best cheese course is the simplest. After dinner, bring out a hefty chunk of one great cheese, like a Stilton, and let your guests work on it as they please.
Whether plain or extravagant, the cheese course is designed for savoring. Each bite is an explosion of flavors, each sip of wine so satisfying. The enjoyment of cheese is the perfect antidote to the frenetic pace of our workaday lives, allowing time for family and friends to relax and enjoy one another and the savory pleasures of one of the world’s great foods.
Finding and buying good cheese
Finding good cheese today is much easier than it was even ten years ago, thanks to the fantastic growth of American artisanal cheeses and better importing of European cheeses. Here are some guidelines to help you shop for cheese.
Look for a reputable merchant. You can recognize serious cheesesellers by their willingness to talk about cheese, to offer you tastes, and to cut cheese to order from whole wheels. They usually won’t sell cheese that’s been cut and packaged before arriving at their store, and their cheeses will carry signs describing their flavors, textures, and origins.
Take advantage of the cheeseseller’s knowledge. If you find a knowledgeable cheeseseller, be sure to take advantage of this resource. Ask the staff a lot of questions. Develop a relationship with the seller in the same way you would a wine merchant, giving feedback about your likes and dislikes, and explaining how you’ll be using the cheese you buy.
Find the best cheese counter among your local grocery stores. If you have access to a store devoted exclusively to cheese, consider yourself lucky and head there immediately. Next, find out if a local specialty gourmet store has a cheese counter. Barring that, you’ll want to compare the cheese selections at your local grocery stores. Many markets carry at least a few varieties of fine cheese. Some grocery stores now have service counters where trained staff will cut and wrap cheese to order. At the very least, look for cheese that the store has obviously wrapped on the premises, and avoid cheese that’s vacuum-sealed in plastic.
Always inspect the cheese before buying it. If it smells at all like ammonia, or if the rind is either dried and cracked or very wet, it’s probably not in the best condition.
If the merchant offers tastes, always accept, even if you’ve tried the cheese before. Cheese is an ever-changing product that varies with season, maturity, and handling. Tasting the cheese is the only guarantee that you will like it.
Refrigerate cheese when you get it home. Cheese continues to ripen as it ages, and refrigeration slows this process. The very freshest cheeses (like ricotta) have the shortest shelf life — just a few days. The hardest aged cheeses (like Parmigiano-Reggiano) keep for months if properly stored.
If you can’t find the cheese you want in your area, try ordering by mail. Several excellent gourmet stores that specialize in hard-to-find imported and domestic cheeses will be glad to ship cheese to you, and there are also Internet sites that sell high-quality cheese directly.
Online sources for cheese
The Cheese Store
419 N. Beverly Dr.
Beverly Hills, CA 90210
This popular gourmet store’s focus is on cheese, and it carries anywhere from 200 to 400 varieties at any given time.
244 Huron Ave.
Cambridge, MA 02138
This Boston gourmet market has an outstanding selection of over 200 cheeses, as well as its own ripening room, where cheeses are held or aged at the best temperature and humidity.
Ideal Cheese Shop
1205 Second Ave.
New York, NY 10021
Devoted entirely to cheese, with a specialty in hard-to-find imported European cheeses, this store can find just about any cheese you’re looking for.
257 Bleecker St.
New York, NY 10014
This tiny store is a not-very-well-kept secret of New York City cheese lovers. It carries a huge variety (over 300 cheeses at any particular time of the year) of the highest quality cheeses at very fair prices.
422 Detroit St.
Ann Arbor, MI 48104
Visit this amazing store for a selection of all the “bests” in the gourmet world, including an outstanding cheese department. Or call for the catalog, which features detailed descriptions of carefully chosen American and European cheeses.
On the Internet
Descriptions and prices of hard-to-find imported cheeses are available directly from the site and through a cheese-of-the-month club.
Information on how cheese is made and links to cheese producers and other cheese web sites.
The American Cheese Society (W7702 County Road X, Darien, WI 53114, 414-728-4458) encourages the appreciation of America’s farmstead and natural specialty cheeses.