The French Cheese Course is a wonderful way to bring a lot of fascinating, varied flavors to the table, without a lot of work. In fact, the way the French present a cheese course in the home is usually very easy indeed—elegant simplicity is the name of the game. Here’s how to do it, in five easy steps:
1. When to serve the cheese course: The cheese course always comes at some point after the main course. It can be served before dessert or as dessert.
2. How to choose the cheeses for a cheese course: There are a few ways to go about it, none of them wrong. I enjoy “bringing home the barnyard”—that is, serving a cow’s milk cheese, a sheep’s milk cheese, and a goat’s milk cheese. One my favorite threesomes is Comté (cow), Ossau-Iraty (sheep), and a soft-ripened goat cheese, not just because they taste great and provide some fascinating contrasts, but also because I know I can use whatever isn’t eaten in my cooking.
For everyday meals, the cheese course can be much more simple than that–perhaps just a piece or two of local cheese and some bread.
3. What to Serve with a Cheese Course: The only things you absolutely need are a knife, a fork, and some bread. Occasionally—and especially if the cheese course will be followed by dessert—the cheeses are accompanied by a small salad to contrast the rich cheeses, as in the photo, at left. I give a recipe my cookbook; however, you can use any flavorful, vinaigrette-tossed greens.
If the cheese course will not be followed by dessert, sometimes—though certainly not always—a little honey, preserves, or fresh fruit can be served with the cheese course (with of course, the bread). The Bonne Femme Cookbookoffers the following recipes:
• Cherry Compote for Pyrénées Sheep’s Milk Cheese (page 329)
• Winter Compote for Cheese (page 328)
However good preserves, fresh fruit, or even some honey can provide that little bit of sweetness that makes the course seem more dessert-worthy.
4. How to Present the Cheese Course: Though you can plate the cheeses individually—1/2 to 1 ounce of each cheese suffices—a French woman would be more likely to simply place the cheese tray in the middle of the table and let everyone help themselves à volonté (as much and as often as they wish). If they’re presenting a salad with the cheese course, they might plate the salad for everyone first.
5. What Wine to Drink with the Cheese Course: In France, the wine you enjoy with your cheese course is most often the wine you’ve been drinking with your main course. You simply finish the bottle on the table. However, if you find yourself needing to open another bottle, a good choice is a Riesling—its brightness and tang offer a nice contrast to the richness of cheeses. If you seek red, try a cru Beaujolais, a lighter-style fruity red that’s cheese friendly.
Champagne always works wonderfully, too.
6. How to Store Leftover Cheese: Waxed paper doesn’t cut it–the cheese can dry out and get hard. Plastic wrap doesn’t let it breathe. The solution? A specially designed cheese wrap. I’ve discovered the solution: Formaticum Cheese Storage Bags.
Made in France (a country that knows a thing or two about cheese), the porous bags allow the cheese to breathe, yet keep it from drying out. They also make post-party cleanup quick: Simply place the leftover cheese in the bag and fold over the top. No time-consuming origami-style re-wrapping needed. (However, if you do like wrapping cheese, you can also buy Formaticum Cheese Paper.)
Other links you might enjoy:
• Choosing Goat Cheese
• Five Favorite French Finds at Trader Joe’s (while you’re picking up some cheese, pick up these great finds, too!)
• Three Good + Inexpensive Sparkling Wines (good choices if you’re serving a crowd–and they go great with cheese)