The Modern Cheese Course
The cheese course remains a growing trend in American dining and entertaining. Restaurants across the country now regularly offer a cheese course. Chefs are making artisan cheese even more enticing by serving it with handmade breads, fruit compotes and salsas, and by creating both savory and sweet pairings. At home, serving cheese before or after dinner and creating cheese platters for parties has sent customers to retail and specialty cheese counters for fine cheese and advice in serving.
Cheese Course Basics
In many European countries, it has long been the custom to enjoy a cheese course before, or in place of, a sweet dessert. In England, it follows the main course and is frequently accompanied by savory biscuits and port. In Italy, a cheese course, paired with sliced salami, is often served as an appetizer. The cheese course may have its roots in France, where it has long been considered the ideal complement to an unfinished bottle of wine at the end of the meal.
A cheese course composed for a restaurant menu should follow these basic guidelines:
As with most things, it’s best to start simply. Begin by offering one to three cheeses with varying textures, colors and flavors, cut into interesting shapes. Serving three cheeses does not challenge the palate with too many flavors, yet provides good variety and contrast. Offer a range of flavors and textures from soft and mild cheese to hard and very sharp or pungent. Alternatively, even serving one cheese at its peak of flavor, paired with a beautifully prepared savory or sweet accompaniment, can be a highly satisfying experience.
Estimate one to one-and-a-half ounces of each cheese per person. If serving three or more cheeses, you might decrease the amount to an ounce or less per person. Cheese courses typically contain just small amounts that provide a combination of flavors to stimulate the dinner appetite or extend the pleasure of a satisfying meal.
Interesting plates, wooden or marble platters, straw mats and wicker or ceramic trays will accommodate most serving occasions. Use seasonally available fresh herbs and greens. Presentation ideas are endless, inspired by personal style, the season and the occasion.
Be sure to cut cheese with the proper tool. Any sharp utility knife will work to cut and serve a semi-soft or semi-hard cheese. Curved prong-tipped knives or special cheese serving knives with wide blades for hard cheeses and open-hole blades for soft cheeses are available from culinary equipment suppliers. Cheese planes are essential for shaving thin slices. A long, sharp chef’s knife is best for cutting wedges from a wheel. For cutting whole wheels or whole blocks, use a large double-handled knife or a cheese wire for the initial cut.