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Beige ambition 

The cheese plate, that misunderstood third course, makes a comeback.

Sometimes when culinary customs travel west across the Atlantic, they arrive upside down and backwards. Take cheese. It's usually served before the meal, filling us up with globs of tasty fat before a meal haseven begun.

I learned this the hard way. Picture it: a handful of puffy Canadian students crowded around a table in southern France. We minor in eating. The lone local---a prim Marseillaise---watches us polish off warm baguettes coated in soft camembert as we wait for spaghetti to boil. At the end of the meal, she says quietly that cheese is best eaten at the end of the meal and a baguette with pasta and cake is "too much beige." These rules explain why French women don't get fat.

Cheese is for savouring. The ability to savour requires appreciation. What better way to heighten the appreciation factor than to serve cheese as its own course? The French usually serve a main course, followed by a salad, then cheese and then, a dessert. Wine flows throughout, except with salad. The salad is meant to refresh, and besides, the vinaigrette is too acidic to pair with the red served with dinner. The cheese course which follows is a great excuse to continue on with the wine from dinner, or better yet, to open a new bottle.

Martin Ruiz, chef/proprietor of Fleur de Sel in Lunenburg, figured out how to encourage a cheese plate. His cheese board is on full view to diners as they enter the restaurant. The cheese settles into room temperature while simultaneously tempting those who pass. Genius.

Dennis Johnston, chef/proprietor of Fid prepared a cheese board, complete with fresh walnuts and dried fruit for six years, and sold just a few plates a month. But lately things are changing---he put it on view, like Ruiz, et voila, the cheese plate is selling.

At CUT Steakhouse, the decor is contemporary, but the cheese tradition is old school. They've got a cheese trolley! Yes, a trolley, filled with picks from the Farmers' Market next door (Dragon's breath from That Dutchman is a favourite) plus a melange of French-style cheeses from the Maritimes and Quebec. What could be better than a soft Moyaux served with the last drop of wine?

Jennie Dobbs, Proprietor of Morris East, is adding a cheese plate to her winter menu. A recent trip to France reminded her of her love for cheese, and more specifically, the power of blue.

There are a few things to remember when serving cheese at home. Cheeses should be eaten in order of increasing flavour, arranged from weakest to strongest. As in flower arranging, select an odd number--- usually three or five, and serve with a fresh baguette or simple crackers. Crowd pleasers are a buttery brie, an interesting firm cheese like a spiced gouda and perhaps a rich blue. Allow cheese to reach room temperature before serving---one to two hours. Serve them on a wooden, wicker or ceramic tray, decorated with leaves, napkins or doilies. Presentation is a personal thing. The rules for when to serve are up to the host. Savouring is key---my Marseillaise friend won't be there to judge.

The best part of the cheese plate? Whatever little bits you have left over will make a fine macaroni and cheese. More beige, yes, but we're not French.


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