Though American palates may sometimes struggle with French dishes, the cheese course—a longstanding French custom—is one tradition that translates beautifully.
“All over France, it’s uncommon to see a menu without a cheese course,” says Emma Young, wholesale manager at French affineur and exporter Mons Cheesemongers. French tradition prescribes that cheese plates are enjoyed either between the main course and dessert, or simply in place of dessert. The selections of fromage—often chosen by the chef for their “seasonality, availability, and current quality,” Young adds—are the perfect meal’s final punctuation.
Stateside, the concept of a cheese course was once sequestered in the realm of fine French dining. With the industrialization of dairy that began in the 19th century, cheese produced in America was increasingly limited to cheddars and large-format blocks: calorie-rich commodities manufactured for mass nutrition. If a cheese was served for gastronomic pleasure and not purely for sustenance, it was probably imported from Europe.
But in the 1980s, American pioneers began producing artisan cheeses worthy of restaurant menus. As small farms in every region started to dabble in—and then master—small-batch cheesemaking, their products slowly displaced imported wheels. Cheese plates percolated out of haute cuisine and into less formal settings, becoming more digestible for a wider American audience.
“We’ve come a long way from the days when restaurant cheese plates were first and foremost French, and when only French restaurants served them,” says Janet Fletcher, author of The Cheese Course (Chronicle Books, 2000) and the blog “Planet Cheese.” “It’s important for any cheese enthusiast to know the ‘Gold Standard’ [European] classics like Comté and Brie de Meaux,” she adds—but in many ways, the rise of the cheese plate has its origins in a distinctly American local food movement. From her vantage point in the San Francisco Bay area, she’s witnessed the shift. At San Francisco’s Zuni Café, which she calls “a pioneer in showcasing the cheese course,” most of the cheeses are now local.
Across the country in Concord, New Hampshire, Revival Kitchen & Bar’s all-New-England cheese menu features five selections from within the state.
“Ten years ago, we couldn’t have had a cheese list with more than half from New Hampshire,” says chef-owner Corey Fletcher. “It would have been Vermont, California, and Europe.” He credits the new options to revitalized local farms that are adopting secondary ventures like cheesemaking, and notes that the cheese menu is more popular on weekends. “It’s more of a social thing,” he says, “Cheese is good for conversation.”
In addition to fostering dialogue among diners, “cheese is a relationship starter between the server and the guest,” says Peter Macone, manager at Campo Enoteca in Manchester, New Hampshire. The farm-to-table restaurant features four local cheeses; often, a server will begin by explaining the list to patrons. Macone confirms that cheeses are ordered “almost always as a starter,” and that Americans very rarely request them after a main course. He mentions that cheese is occasionally ordered alongside the main course, however, because it has a “fajita effect” as it is carried through the restaurant—those who may have overlooked the cheese menu change their minds when they glimpse a composed board.
The restaurant setting is ideal for tasting new cheeses, whether you’re a novice or simply don’t want to commit to a full wedge. It’s a great way to try the artisan American products that debut seasonally, or learn about traditional European wheels whose rich histories have informed stateside cheesemaking. For many, a cheese course is a trial of unfamiliar flavors, and we like to have others at the table to taste with us. As we’ve trended away from traditional French selections and toward locally-focused and shareable cheese plates, it’s become clear that the cheese course is finding its own place in American dining.
HOW TO CRAFT A KILLER CHEESE COURSE
Buy the correct amount of cheese. If you’re serving the cheese plate as part of a meal, that’s about 1/8 pound per person.
Put a label on it. Noting each cheese’s name and style is helpful for tasters, especially when pairing.
Diversify textures. All block cheddars? Boring! Aim for a mix of soft, semi-soft, firm, and hard cheeses. Click here for more on cheese textures.
Warm it up. Assemble the plate at least a half-hour before serving. Room-temperature cheeses—and accoutrements—just taste better.
Mix up milks. Too much moo means you’re missing out. Include goat’s and sheep’s milk curds to keep things lively.
Set out (appropriate) silverware. Using the same knife to cut all the cheeses will mix up flavors, sometimes unpleasantly. Designate one serving utensil for each cheese, and make sure it’s the right one for the job (click here for a tutorial).