Go to any fine European restaurant and you’ll likely be offered a cheese course as a starter to your meal. After all, what tastes better with a crisp, smooth glass of fine wine? Legend has it that cheese was invented around 7,000 B.C. by a wandering nomad who was carrying milk across the desert in a saddlebag made from an animal’s stomach. When the nomad reached his destination, the milk had separated into whey and curds, thus creating the first cheese.
From then on, the cheesemaking process was perfected around the world, especially in abbeys, where monks created highly prized Muenster (derived from the word monasterium), a highly prized cheese with a red rind and smooth yellow interior.
The French word for cheese, “fromage,” derives from the Latin term “Formaticus,” which means “made in a mold.”
Today, some of the best cheeses are still made in France, including Camembert, Roquefort, Brie, Morbier, Pyrenee and Chevre.A traditional European-style cheese course includes three or more types of cheese, a variety of good-quality crackers, crusty French bread, and fresh seasonal fruit.
When serving a cheese courses, be sure to have a variety of mild, medium and strong (such as blue-veined) cheeses, as well as a variety of soft, semisoft and firm varieties. Generally, six ounces of cheese per person is a generous allotment, or for a party of four, 1/2 pound of four different cheeses ensures that there will likely be leftovers.
In general, mature cheeses tend to be the strongest. For example, Roquefort cheese is aged at least three months in a cave where the atmosphere assists the development of the characteristic blue veins. Blue-veined cheeses are also poked with holes and sprayed with spores of mold to create their characteristic look and taste.
To store cheese, “The New Food Lover’s Companion” recommends the following:
● Firm, semifirm and semisoft cheese should be wrapped airtight in a plastic bag and stored in the refrigerator’s warmest location for up to several weeks. Such cheeses can be frozen, but the texture may be affected. If mold appears on these cheeses, it may be cut away and discarded. The remaining cheese is still suitable for eating.
● Fresh and soft-ripened cheeses should be tightly wrapped and stored in the coldest part of the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks. If mold appears on any of these cheeses, it should be thrown out.
Before serving any cheese, bring it to room temperature, as it will taste better. Supply a separate sharp knife for each wedge or block of cheese. Remember — let the guests cut their own cheese. Cubed cheese with toothpicks is tacky, tacky, tacky!
About 70 percent of cheeses can be matched with a white wine. And often a dry white or sweet wine can be a better option.
In general, go with the following wine pairing options:
● Goat’s Cheeses: Sauvignon Blanc or Chardonnay
● Mild Cheeses: Gamay, Chenin
● Medium Cheeses: Pinot Noir, Merlot
● Strong Cheeses: Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah (Shiraz), Grenache
If you would like to buy more exotic or Artisinal varieties, try mail order sources such as Dean & DeLuca.