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Sunday, May 20, 2012

C'est Frommage

Choosing cheese in an upscale French restaurant can be a daunting task---it’s not unusual for a Michelin star restaurant to have 30 from which to select.  Charles de Gaulle 50 years ago quipped, "How can you govern a country which has 246 varieties of cheese?”   Today, France has 350-400 distinct types of cheese and some claim closer to 1,000 when you consider the different varieties within each type.  Below are my strategies for navigating the cheese cart ("chariot de frommage").

            1.  Less is more.   There are many ways to spot a novice but one of the best ways to do so is by the number of cheeses that are chosen.  Watch the French---typically they select 3-5 cheeses---any more is considered gluttonous or wasteful as cheese (usually eaten with bread) is very filling.

            2.  Explore!   One of my worst “Ugly American” moments was at a Michelin star restaurant 10 years ago in Burgundy.   Also dining that evening was a couple from the USA---we had noticed them some tables away because they were loud, demanding and having difficulty with the menu choices.  When the enormous cheese cart was wheeled to their table I saw their “deer in the headlights.”  The waiter offered a detailed overview of the cheeses, then the customer said in a disgusting tone of voice that everyone in the restaurant heard, “Don’t you have any brie?”   Only wanting what one could purchase at home is a huge missed opportunity, in fact, I recommend that you don’t choose anything that you know. 

          3.  Mix or match?    Are you a lover of goat cheese like I am?  If so, you may want to choose a sampler of just chèvre.   One of my faves is any of the chèvre logs covered with black ash, but I’m also wild about Valencay from the Loire Valley (easily identified by its truncated pyramid shape), and Banon from Provence (a small disc covered with a chestnut leaf).   If you want a mixture, I suggest one of the pre-mentioned goat cheeses, accompanied by Cantal (a luscious semi-hard cow cheese from the mountains of central France) or Reblochon (a soft, rich cow cheese from the Alps), along with gold medal winning Petit Agour (a semi-hard cheese produced from sheep in the Basque region with nutty profiles).   Blue lover?  If you know Roquefort (made from sheep), try another of France’s many blues.

        4.  Communicate.   If you’re a beginner let the server know and ask him to select for you.  If you have preferences (e.g. cow, goat or sheep), let this be known as well.  No, you don’t have to speak French to do so…sign language works, and don’t forget that a smile can work wonders.

       5.  Watch the Clock.  Cheese should be eaten in order from the mildest to strongest.  Prior to choosing, ask the server to arrange them in order placing the mildest cheese at the top of the plate (12 position of a clock), ending with the strongest (e.g. blue) at the 9 position on the clock.

Bon appétit...and remember, be adventurous!

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