In restaurants in France, a typical way to end the meal is with cheese. The server wheels a cart laden with a selection of cheeses around to your table, and youa fromage-savvy dinerpoint to one or two that strike your fancy. The server cuts off a small piece, places the cheeses on a plate, maybe adds a couple of pieces of fresh fruit and voilà...dessert! Quite a bit more restrained than Death by Chocolate or a bowl of banana pudding.
Though you won’t spy any cheese carts in Nashville restaurants, cheese plates are making an appearance on some menus, as a way to begin or end the meal. Hosts or hostesses entertaining at home can offer the same thing, but where to begin? Two of the best resources in Nashville for purchasing fresh cheese are Provence Bakery & Café in Hillsboro Village and Wild Oats Natural Marketplace in Green Hills. The quantity on hand varies widelyabout 30 types in the case at the former, as opposed to more than 300 at Wild Oatsbut the quality available on any given day at both is superb. Most importantly, their service staffs are educated and extremely helpful for those not fluent in fromage.
Whether you are facing 30 cheeses or 300, the experience for Americans who grew up on, well, American cheese, can be intimidating. “I see people come in, look at our cheeses, get scared and pick up the same thing every time,” says Wouter Feldbusch, who presides over the cheese cases at Wild Oats. “We are happy to open any cheese and let people have a taste.”
One would think that the more manageable quantity of cheese at Provence would provoke less anxiety, but that is not necessarily true, says store GM and cheese buyer, Richard Van Etten. “Though we have lots of customers who know cheese, you can tell the ones who don’t. They almost look panicked. Needless to say, we walk them through it. We are here to help and educate.”
At Wild Oats, you can practically walk around the world by circling the 4-sided cheese case. In one section, cheeses are grouped by country, without diplomatic immunity: Feldbusch fearlessly places British cheeses right next to French cheese, with Italy, Holland and Greece nearby. “That’s how the world should be, don’t you agree?” he asks rhetorically.
The next section is grouped by types of cheese: bleu cheese, goat cheese, stinky cheeses, brie and camembert. The third section of the case holds two of the most popular cheesesSwiss and Jarlsbergwhich, like all of the cheeses in the global section, arrive in big wheels and are hand-cut and wrapped by staff. Also in that department are pre-packed cheeses and organic cheeses. The fourth section is reserved for olives, peppers, caperberrys and cornichon, sold by the weight, as well as spreadable cheeses and imported butters.
At Provence, the names of their smaller, but more exclusive, selection of cheeses are displayed on a blackboard, and on handwritten cards mounted on the cheese itself. Though most of the cards have a short description, there is also a master file box of cards describing all the cheeses that the store has or has had, and a couple of resource guides, notably Steve Jenkins Cheese Primer, which is recommended for anyone wanting to learn more about cheese.
Putting together an appetizer or dessert cheese plate at home is not so difficult. Following is advice from Van Etten and Feldbusch:
♦ About three cheeses should be sufficient to either begin or end dinner, in reasonable, not large, weights or sizes. You neither want to fill up before a meal, nor do you want to stuff yourself at the end of it.
♦ Do not use strong cheeses as an appetizer; “You are building your courses,” says Van Etten, also a chef. “You don’t want to overwhelm the palate at the beginning of the meal.”
♦ An appetizer cheese plate might have a goat cheese, a gouda (aged gouda has more flavor and is harder than un-aged) and a mild camembert.
A cheese course to end a meal would have stronger cheeses. Again, an aged gouda is always appropriate, and bleu cheese has a nice bite. A more intensely flavored brie is also a good inclusion.
♦ If you are doing three cheeses, then one might be a cow milk cheese, one goat and one sheep. “Pick one that you like from each of those sources,” says Feldbusch. “You want to have some texture as well,” advises Van Etten. “So you should have a firm cheese, a crumbly cheese and a creamy cheese.”
♦ Serve the cheeses with fresh fruitsnot just apples and grapes, but also pears and figs, crackers or bread, small slices of fruit bread and toasted nuts. “You want to contrast flavors. Pears go nicely with a Stilton, for instance,” says Feldbusch. Van Etten recommends spreading Cambazolaa soft mix of Camembert and gorgonzolaon dark fruit bread.
♦ Pair the cheeses with the right wines, which would be easier to do if it were legal to sell wine in a market. Feldbusch says that in general, red wines do better with cheese than white. And port is an excellent choice to quaff during a final course of cheese.
♦ If your cheese is wrapped in cling wrap, take it out and put it in a ziploc bag before storing in the refrigerator. If your cheese grows mold, simply cut it offit does not affect the cheese (though cheese kept in the refrigerator for a long time can lose some flavor). Take your cheese out of the refrigerator three hours before serving, and do not be concerned if it starts to sweat. “Cheese is a living thing,” both men emphasize. “It needs to breathe.”
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