A cheese course featuring an ash-coated goat cheese, half of a Pont-l'Evèque and a Perail. Jams or confits complement many cheeses. Recipe for shallot confit is below.
In his memoir The Physiology of Taste, the 18th century French epicure Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin writes, "Un dessert sans fromage est une belle à qui il manque un oeil" -- a meal without cheese is a one-eyed beauty. This was 1825, but the aphorism still rings true today.*
With more than 400 different kinds of cheese and an average consumption of 53 pounds per person per year, the French take immense pride in their cheese. Countless recipes call for it -- slivers of Fourme d'Ambert on a savory pear tart, freshly grated Comté sprinkled on a gratin, Roquefort sauce on a flank steak, Reblochon melted with potatoes for a tartiflette, and on and on.
True cheese aficionados, however, prefer their cheese at center stage. For them, a cheese course -- presented after the main dish and before dessert -- is the purest way to savor and celebrate milk's gifts to the table.
Clotilde Dusoulier is the 26-year-old Parisienne behind the popular food blog Chocolate & Zucchini. She is working on her first cookbook.
A cheese course also presents an excellent occasion to study the gastronomic characters around the table: There are those who shake their heads politely and pass, and there are those whose eyes light up, revealing unsuspected reserves of appetite. (In my experience, the enthusiasm of the latter often spreads to the former, who eventually dig in too.)
In putting a platter together, the choice of cheese should first and foremost reflect your tastes and those of your guests, but as with the meal, you should strive for harmonious variety. Each item should be sufficiently different from the others to maintain the diner's interest, and the selection should make sense as a whole.
The classic French cheese course usually offers a minimum of three cheeses, each representing a different type of milk (cow, goat or sheep's milk) or a different family of cheese. Choices include fresh cheese, soft cheese with surface mold (Brie, Camembert), soft cheese with a washed rind (Maroilles, Epoisses, Reblochon), soft cheese with a natural rind (Saint-Marcellin, most goat cheese Crottins), blue cheese (Roquefort, Bleu d'Auvergne), unheated pressed cheese (Cantal, Morbier) and heated pressed cheese (Beaufort, Emmental). Each cheese can be placed around the platter in the best order to taste it, from the mildest to the strongest.
A modern interpretation features a single family of cheese, with each selection bringing an interesting voice to the chorus. I had such a platter recently at a farm in Provence where they raise goats and make their own cheese. The breadth of tastes and textures -- from mild and tender, to creamy and tangy, to hard as a rock and sharp as a razor -- made me forget for a moment that goat wasn't the only kind of cheese.
And if you happen to lay your hands on one particularly superb piece of artisanal cheese -- a creamy Mont d'Or, an aged Comté or a glorious Munster -- don't hesitate to let it play solo.
In its simplest expression, a cheese platter is served with just an ample provision of bread. Fresh baguette remains the ideal pairing for me, but country bread in thick slices can work well too. Specialty breads (with different blends of flours, nuts, herbs or dried fruit) are tempting and the pairings are sometimes very successful -- say, walnut or raisin bread with blue cheeses, sesame bread with Brie -- but I suggest serving them in addition to a more neutral-tasting bread, as some cheeses (and cheese fans) don't take kindly to them.
A cheese course is sometimes served with a salad (simply dressed with a bit of olive or walnut oil, so as not to clash with the other flavors), but fresh fruit is a popular alternative. Grapes, slices of apples or pears help cleanse your palate between cheeses and complement most all of them, while figs work beautifully with goat cheeses, apricots with Camembert, and red currants or blueberries with Morbier.
Other possible companions include subtly sweet jams, honey, vegetable confits, dried fruits and nuts, as well as various herbs and spices. Black cherry jam is classically served with sheep's milk cheese in the Basque country, honey can be drizzled lightly on goat cheese or Reblochon, shallot confit can be paired with Pont-l'Evêque, cumin or caraway seeds with gouda and Munster, hazelnuts with Coulommiers, paprika with Comté, etc. Follow your instincts and don't be afraid to experiment.
As for the wine pairing, gone are the days when reds were considered the only acceptable option. White wines, Champagne and even beer, make more and more frequent appearances. Pairing a cheese with a wine from the same region is always a safe bet, but what makes the exercise difficult is that each type of cheese on a platter really deserves its own wine partner: a light red wine for soft cheese with surface molds, a robust red for washed rinds and blue cheese, a dry and fruity white for natural rinds, a light red or a dry white with pressed cheese.
I suggest you opt for the lightest pairing: leaving the strongest cheese a bit under-supported is better than completely overwhelming the mildest. However, for simplicity's sake you may choose to continue with the last wine served during the meal.
*Literally, Brillat-Savarin wrote "dessert without cheese is a one-eyed beauty," but this was a time when cheese was served as part of the dessert spread, so I took the liberty to edit the translation for clarity in light of today's usage.
RECIPE: Shallot Confit
1 pound shallots (about 12 small ones)
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2 teaspoons brown sugar
Salt and pepper
Peel the shallots and slice them thinly. Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add in the shallots and stir to coat. Reduce heat to low, add in the balsamic vinegar and sugar, season with salt and pepper, and stir again.
Cover and cook over low heat until the shallots are very soft, about an hour and a half, stirring from time to time. If the mixture starts to dry out or stick to the pan, add in a touch of water. When the shallots are soft, taste the confit and adjust the seasoning. Let cool to room temperature. Store in the refrigerator for up to a week, or freeze.
Serve as an accompaniment to cheese, grilled fish or meat, add to sandwiches, mix into a vinaigrette, or spread on little toasts with a bit of smoked ham.