A course of ripe, gooey cheese has been a part of French dining for generations.
Only in the past three years has the tradition been embraced by a significant number of U.S. restaurateurs. Interestingly, the trend is not limited to French-style establishments.
The European custom is to serve the cheese course between the entree and dessert, but many American restaurants approach the cheese tray as an appetizer course. Served before a meal, the cheese may be accompanied by olives, marcona almonds and perhaps Serrano ham. After a meal, the tray may be enhanced by figs, dried apricots and caramelized walnuts.
Many diners now make a meal out of a cheese tray and a glass or two of wine. Enjoyable wine options range from buttery Chardonnay to complex Cabernet Sauvignon to decadently sweet late-harvest bottlings. If the restaurant has a sommelier, ask him or her for specific suggestions.
The typical cheese tray will include a variety of flavors and textures. If you’re unfamiliar with the different types of cheese, ask to have them arranged from mildest to sharpest. That’s the order in which you’ll want to eat them.
You’ll also enhance the experience by mixing textures – a soft cheese with crunchy toast, as an example.
For a “total immersion” experience, spear a chunk of firm cheese with your fork, top it with a nut, drizzle it with honey and then swipe it through a puddle of balsamic.
(We now pause for a long sigh…)