The French Cheese Plate

There are very few things that Paul and I like better than cheese and wine!  There are only rare moments when our refrigerator is not completely full of cheese.  Thank goodness we have access to wonderful cheeses through our local cheesemonger Mary Dedrick.  It would be a very sad existence without access to Auvergne Blue, Beemster Glouda, Explorateur, or our new favorite Epoisse.

Cheese plate served at lunch with Jeannou in Cahors.

On our recent trip to France, we were again enthralled with the cheese plates that were served at every meal, and the depth of knowledge of each Frenchman/woman.  It is hard not to fall in love with something that is served so well and tastes so delicious!

In France, the cheese course is served after dinner as a segue to dessert, and something to enjoy while you finish your last sips of wine.  A cheese plate can contain as many as 12 cheeses, but this is more likely in a restaurant.  In our experience visiting people’s homes, it was more common to see 4-6 cheeses encompassing a variety of flavors and textures.  My own personal opinion of having cheese after dinner is that I really enjoy it, more than having it before dinner.  First and foremost, I tend to eat far less of it, having already had dinner.  Secondly, I find the flavors after dinner soothing, and a great companion for lingering over the last few sips of wine and conversation.

Cheese plate served by Christine & Michel in Cahors.

Each year at our Sip n Study event, Mary Dedrick and I team up to present a wine and cheese pairing seminar.  This year, we focused on French cheeses paired with Madroña wines.  Normally we would start with which wines we wanted to pair, but this year, we reversed it.  We started with the cheese and then found the wines.   Mary imported some special French cheeses, and Paul and I spent the evening pairing the wines – very difficult work!  The pairings that we presented were:

 

Valencay – Goat Cheese from the Loire Valley (2010 Nebbiolo Rose) – We also included a pairing with a Kalamata Olive from Greece.  Both pairings worked beautifully, but for different reasons.

Langres – Cow cheese from the Champagne Region (2007 Merlot)

Epoisse – Washed rind cheese from the Burgundy Region (2008 Shiraz/Cabernet)

Le Rove Des Garrigues – Goat Cheese from Provence (2008 Zinfandel – Hillside)

Blue D’Auvergne – Cows Milk Blue from Basque Region (2007 Quintet)

These cheeses, while great for the presentation, would make a beautiful cheese plate as well.  They cover a variety of cheeses, textures, styles, rinds, etc.  They are all very wine friendly.  So have fun creating your own cheese plate and let us know how it goes!

P.S.  In an old Bon Appetit (The Paris Issue, May 2001), there is a great article called “The Beginner’s Guide to the Cheese Course”.  I tried to find it online so that I could link it for you, but alas, I could not find it.  But I thought it was so useful, so I copied it into this post for you…

A Beginner’s Guide to the Cheese Course (Bon Appetit, May 2001)

Cheese holds an exalted place in France, forming a culinary holy trinity along with bread and wine.  It also has special status as a separate course at French meals.  And while it is in Parisian restaurants where many of us have converted to the cult of cheese, cheese courses are increasingly popular on this side of the Atlantic.  For the uninitiated, here’s a guide to this utterly French-and delectable-customer.

Served after the main course, the cheese course is a nice segue to dessert or, in lieu of a sweet, a sumptuous finale to enjoy with the last sips of wine.  At a Parisian restaurant, the daily selection of cheeses, ranging from a handful to several dozen, is presented at the table on a platter or a trolley.  Though it may be tempting, you probably shouldn’t try every cheese on the cart.  Depending on your appetite and whether dessert will follow, four to six different cheeses will suffice.

Making sense of the hundreds of varieties of French cheese can seem overwhelming.  It needn’t be, says Steven Jenkins, author of the Cheese Primer, and the first American to be awarded France’s prestigious title of Chevalier du Taste-Fromage, literally, a knight of cheese tasters.  “Cheese is one of the only things in life that you can judge by its cover,” he says.  And learning to read the rinds is the first step in choosing the best cheeses.

In general, the rougher a rind looks, the more interesting the cheese.  “If the rind is too pristine,” Jenkins explains, “the cheese is factory-made and is probably boring.”  So focus on cheese with rough, rustic, handmade exteriors.

Also seek out a variety of flavors, from mild to pungent.  Choose cheeses with varying textures and rinds and you’ll likely vary the intensity of flavors.

Jenkins recommends starting with a mild goat cheese, or a chevre, which is made in a variety of shapes, from bells to buttons to pyramids, like Pouligny-Saint-Pierre, which is nicknamed the Eiffle Tower.  Unaged chevres have a white exterior with a moist somewhat crumbly interior.  As they age, the rind darkens to a mottled beige, the center becomes firmer, and the flavor is more pronounced.  Chevres also come covered in fresh herbs, which infuse the cheeses with extra flavor.

Next, for a more pronounced, sharper flavor, choose a firmer cheese made from cow’s or sheep’s milk, typically with a hard rind and a light yellow interior.  Restaurants will often offer a Cantal (somewhat similar to English cheddar) or a mild straw-colored Tomme de Savoie.  Morbier, with a distinctive thin layer of ash running horizontally through the middle is also worth trying.

“Then you definitely want to have a washed-rind cheese, something that’s smelly and strong, with a soft texture,” says Jenkins.  Typically square-shaped with a reddish rind when aged, washed-rind cheeses are especially poplar in France.  A very powerfull Maroilles or a somewhat milder Pont l’Eveque will probably be on the cart.  Or opt for a more familiar unwashed-rind Camembert or Brie, recognizable by the milky-white exterior and a creamy, ivory interior.

Finally, round out the plate with the most pungent of cheeses:  blue.  With a crumbly texture and characteristics bluish-green veins, blue cheese stand out in a crowd.  Roquefort is particularly strong; if you prefer less bang in your bite, choose a gentler Saint Agur or Bleu d’Auvergne.

As you select each cheese, the waiter will slice a small wedge and serve it on a plate.  And as for the rind, feel free to eat it or use a fork and knife to trim it away – it’s completely a matter of personal taste.  Finish up with the wine that’s left over from the main course, or ask the sommelier to recommend an appropriate half bottle.  You’ll soon understand why the cheese course is such a beloved institution.

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