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The French cheese course is a wonderful way to bring a lot of fascinating, varied flavors to the table, without a lot of work. In fact, the way the French present a cheese course in the home is usually very easy indeed—elegant simplicity is the name of the game. Here’s how to do it, in five easy steps:
1. When to serve the cheese course: The cheese course always comes at some point after the main course. It can be served before dessert or as dessert.
2. How to choose the cheeses for a cheese course: There are a few ways to go about it, none of them wrong. I enjoy “bringing home the barnyard”—that is, serving a cow’s milk cheese, a sheep’s milk cheese, and a goat’s milk cheese. One my favorite threesomes is Comté (cow), Ossau-Iraty (sheep), and a soft-ripened goat cheese, not just because they taste great and provide some fascinating contrasts, but also because I know I can use whatever isn’t eaten in my cooking.
For holidays, you can add even more varieties—a blue cheese and a bloomy-rind cheese, such as Camembert or Brie, are great bets.
3. What to Serve with a Cheese Course: The only things you absolutely need are a knife, a fork, and some bread. Occasionally—and especially if the cheese course will be followed by dessert—the cheeses are accompanied by a small salad to contrast the rich cheeses, as in the photo [DIRECTIONAL]. Simply use any flavorful greens tossed with your favorite vinaigrette.
If the cheese course will not be followed by dessert, sometimes—though certainly not always—a little honey, preserves, or fresh fruit can be served with the cheese course (with of course, the bread).
If you’ve served plenty of bread with your meal and you’re looking for a change, there’s no shame in serving crackers—the English serve their cheese with “biscuits” quite often.
4. How to Present the Cheese Course: Though you can plate the cheeses individually—1/2 to 1 ounce of each cheese suffices—a French woman would be more likely to simply place the cheese tray in the middle of the table and let everyone help themselves à volonté (as much and as often as they wish). If they’re presenting a salad with the cheese course, they might plate the salad for everyone first.
5. What Wine to Drink with the Cheese Course: In France, the wine you enjoy with your cheese course is most often the wine you’ve been drinking with your main course. You simply finish the bottle on the table.
However, for the holidays, you might want to bring out a special bottle. A good choice is a Riesling—its brightness and tang offer a nice contrast to the richness of cheeses. If you seek red, try a cru Beaujolais, a lighter-style fruity red that’s cheese friendly. Champagne always works wonderfully, too.
Photo credits: Richard Swearinger
Wini Moranville is the author of The Bonne Femme Cookbook: Simple, Splendid Food That French Women Cook Every Day. Read her blog or follow her on Facebook at Chez Bonne Femme.