Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Cheese Course...A Brief Primer

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Americans, to put it mildly, don't know how to eat cheese.  And why should they? Aside from Wisconsin or Vermont cheddar, cheese is not something Americans have grown up with.  Our idea of cheese is melted over a hamburger, sliced for ham and cheese sandwiches or as part of a tray carelessly put together to keep away the hunger pangs before a meal.  Worse of all, we serve it straight from the refrigerator.

In Europe, particularly in France, cheese is as venerated  and enjoyed almost as much as wine. Wine and cheese have many similarities including the fact that both are fermented, complex and have a rich heritage.  Just as wine can be made from different grapes, cheese can be made from the milk of different animals.  Where the grapes are grown and how they are cultivated will be reflected in the wine, just as where the animals live and what they eat will be reflected in the cheese.    That is why terroir is just as important when pairing cheese with wine as it is when pairing wines with food.  In other words, if it grows together it goes together.  It's as simple as that.

Getting to know the delights of cheese can be an intimidating prospect, if only because of the astounding number of varieties available. Humankind has been engaged in creating different cheeses ever since the process was discovered by accident at least 10,000 years ago. France alone produces over 500 different varieties of cheese and there are at least a thousand individually named varieties worldwide.

Cheese categories And Wine Pairings

 The following are categories of cheese and suggested wine pairings. Most people prefer serving the softer, more delicately flavored cheeses with lighter, fruitier wines. As the cheeses become more flavorful and assertive, you should select from heartier, more intensely-flavored wines. Some cheese experts point out that you can sometimes set up delicious pairings by deliberately contrasting flavors. Some soft creamy cheeses go very well with complex, full-bodied wines.

In general, cheese and wine produced near the same region marry well. For example, serve Sancerre wines with Crottin de Chavignol or a Vin de Jura with Comte. But what’s most important is that neither overwhelms the other. Thus robust blue cheeses should be matched with equally strong red wines*, while more delicate, creamier cheeses need an intense white or fruity red wine. Spanish sherries, both dry and sweet are excellent partners for many cheeses; especially those from Spain. The bottom line here is that your own personal preference should prevail.

I.  Fresh, rindless cheese: unripened, moist and quite soft, with a high water content. Those made from cows milk tend to be mild in flavor; goat and sheep milk have stronger flavors.

Examples: French Chevre  (mild to tangy) and Montrachet (slightly tangy), Greek Feta (salty and milky), Mozzarella (mild), Italian Robiola (mild and creamy) and Ricotta (mild).

Wine Pairing: Brut champagne/ sparkling; Pinot Blanc; Pinot Gris; crisp, high-acid Sauvignon Blanc, such as Pouilly-Fume and Sancerre; Beaujolais; Chenin Blanc; or Vouvray.

II. Soft-ripened :bloomy rind with soft edible skin. When fully ripe and at room temperature, center is runny.

Examples: French Brie (mild and buttery to pungent) and Camembert (slightly acidic and earthy); triple-cremes such as French Gratte-Paille (artisanal cheese), Brillat-Savarin, Explorateur , and Saint-Andre (all rich and buttery).

Wine Pairing: Brut Champagne/sparkling; lighter, dry styles of Riesling and Chenin Blanc; Beaujolias, Cabernet Sauvignon; fruitier styles of Pinot Noir and Merlot.

III. Semi-Soft washed-rind cheeses (the rinds have been rubbed or washed during the ripening process) .

Examples: French Pont-l’ Eveque, Epoisses, and Livarot (very strong artisanal cheese); Munster from Alsace, Italian Taleggio (mild and buttery); and Spanish Mahon.

Wine Pairing: sturdy red wines such as Syrah, Barolo, Barbaresco, weightier Pinot Noir or Burgundy.

IV. Semi-Soft : aged and protected by an inedible wax rind. Can be sliced, but difficult to grate.

Examples: Italian Bel Paese (mild and sweet); Dutch Gouda and Edam (salty and tangy depending on age), American Brick (mild to strong depending on age), Italian Fontina (nutty and smoky) and Bel Paese; French Port-Salut (mellow to sharp) and Reblochon (mild and creamy).

Wine Pairing: Chardonnay and oak-matured Sauvignon Blanc (Fume Blanc); Alsace Riesling,; Gewurztraminer; Viognier; Roussanne and Marsanne; Pinot Noir.

V. Hard: drier and firmer than semi-soft and aged for varying lengths of time. Can be sliced and grated.

Examples: French Cantal (nutty and mild to sharp); English or American Cheddar (mild to sharp depending on age); Swiss or Emmenthaler (sweet and nutty); Spanish Manchego (mellow, but full flavored); American Monterey Jack (mild to mellow) and Italian Provolone (mild to sharp).

Wine Pairing: Fino and Amontillado Sherries, Barbera, Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache, Merlot, Mourvedre, Nebbiolo, Sangiovese, Syrah, Tempranillo.

VI. Blue-Veined: Injected with a mold to produce veining prior to ripening. Consistencies vary from creamy to dry and crumbly.

Examples: French Bleu du Bresse (piquant, but milder than most blues), and Roquefort (sharp and pungent), Spanish Cabrales, Danish Blue (sharp and salty), Italian Gorgonzola (tangy and piquant), American Maytag Blue (strong and salty), and English Stilton (piquant, but milder than most blues).

Wine Pairing: Extra Dry or Demisec Champagne/sparkling, late-harvest
Chenin Blanc, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon and Tokay, old vines
Grenache and Zinfandel, reserve Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz/Syra,
Vintage Port, Sauterne* (the ultimate!!!) or dessert wine.

VII. Grating Cheeses: hard, with crumbly texture and ripened for various lengths of time. Hard to slice; best grated.

Examples: Italian Asiago (usually sharp), Parmigiano-Reggiano (sharp, nutty and often salty) and Pecorino Romano (usually sharp); and Swiss Sapsago (grassy and herbal).

Wine Pairing: Fino Sherry, Nebbiolo, reserve Sangiovese, Syrah, Zinfandel.

Ultimate Pairings:

Goat Cheese with Sancerre
Stilton with Port
Roquefort with Sauternes

Fromagerie Berthelemy

My Favorite Cheese Shop:

Fromagerie Barthélémy,  51 rue de Grenelle,  Paris 75007

Perhaps the most famous in all of Paris, this tiny shop boasts over 200 cheeses. Luckily it is within walking distance of where I usually stay and I never go by without peering in and taking a sniff!

The Cheese Course...Serving Tips:

Don't serve too many cheeses. Even one carefully chosen cheese paired with an excellent wine can constitute a pleasing cheese course. Put three or four cheeses of differing flavors, shapes and textures on a large cheese platter, set out an equal number of knives and let guests slice and savor. I suggest a soft Brie, such as the luxurious Brie de Meaux from France or better still, a Brillat-Savarin; an American Cheddar, preferably an unpasteurized white cheddar from Vermont,  a blue cheese like Blue de Bresse or Roquefort and something just for fun like a spicy, aged Gouda. Or hone in on a particular country like Spain and serve Manchego, Cabrales, La Serena, and Mahon . If you crave blue cheese, go all out with a platter of Maytag, Irish Cashel and Stilton, although this can be a bit overwhelming.  I have often served a platter of different goat cheeses, both domestic and imported after a Provencal menu.  Accompanied with fig jam, honey, pears and a baguette it is mana from heaven!

Always serve cheese at room temperature. Depending on the warmth of the room, it shouldn't take more than an hour. Leave cheese wrapped while its warming up.

Arrange wedges and logs far from one another so flavors remain distinct. Figure on a two-ounce serving portion of each cheese per person if the cheese platter is an appetizer or dessert; double that if cheese is the whole meal.

Tell your guests the name, origin and type of each cheese, and in which order it’s best to sample them. As in wine-tasting, progress from milder cheeses to stronger ones.

Pair foods that won't overshadow the delicious flavor and texture of the cheese. Some possibilities include:

Breads: Baguettes, Brioche, Walnut Bread

Fruits: Fuji or Gala Apples, Anjou or Bosc Pears, Grapes, Melon, Peaches, Strawberries

Dried Fruits: Cherries, Currants, Dates, Figs, Raisins, Apricots, Cranberries

Nuts: Walnuts, Pistachios, Almonds, Hazelnuts

Other: Fruit Chutneys, Olives, Honey, fig jam (particularly good with goat cheese!)

Cheese Etiquette

When serving cheese a la francaise, an individual serving is cut from each cheese being served and place on a diner's plate and eaten with a knife and fork.

The edibility of a cheeses rind is a matter of taste and common sense. The rind of stilton is obviously inedible, while eating the rinds of Reblochon, Brie or Camembert is a matter of personal preference. Its acceptable to trim them away.

It is considered bad manners to cut the "nose" off a wedge of Brie.  Long slices should be taken from alternate sides to maintain its shape.

Truckles such as Stilton need to have a "lid" cut off the top.  You can either use a cheese spoon to serve the cheese from the opening or cut down from the opening to serve small wedges.  Replace lid when storing the cheese.  Same can be done for Gouda or Edam cheese.

When to Eat Cheese

You can either serve cheese as a separate course at the end of the meal, instead of or before dessert, like the French; or as the Italians as a separate course before the meal.  In this case it is served with some form of salumi (cured pok products) and fruits or vegetables, olives, nuts, bread and wine. It is also served as an appetizer before an evening meal.

A wonderful alternative is to serve it as the meal for lunch together with a baguette and perhaps a slice of terrine or jambon de bayonne and a salad.  A glass of wine wouldn't hurt either!  This is by far my favorite way and one which I enjoy often, particularly when I'm by myself.

A blue cheese with ash in the middle

Buying and Storing Tips:

Try to buy from a specialty cheese or gourmet shop if one is available where you live.  The selection will be wider and fresher.  Supermarkets are not the best place to buy cheese. Taste before you buy whenever possible.

Never buy pre-sliced cheese.

Cheese, like wine, is seasonal.  Check with your cheesemonger to buy a particular cheese at its peak.

Buy cheese that has a natural rather than a plastic rind. Fresh-cut cheese will taste better than a plastic-wrapped wedge. Look for a cheese that seems fresh, with no mold or seeping liquid. Don’t buy cheese in a puffed-up package that looks as if its ready to burst. And never buy cheese that smells even slightly of ammonia.

To store cheese, wrap it in wax paper or parchment paper, (tin foil is okay also) then overwrap with plastic wrap. Never wrap cheese in plastic wrap alone, it makes cheese sweat.  Once you have unwrapped the cheese, discard wrapping and put cheese in new wrapping. Store in your refrigerators produce bin which has high humidity.  Cheeses that come in a box, such as Camembert, should be stored in the box.

The softer the cheese, the shorter the shelf life. Very soft cheese such as chevre should be used within a few days. Hard cheeses will keep for up to a month.

No cheese benefits from freezing, so buy cheese in small quantities and use it while its fresh.  I have had good luck freezing Stilton and Gruyere but not for long periods of time.

This is as much as I know about cheese (with a little help from some of my books); but there is tons of information out there in books or on the web.  I have three books which I strongly recommend on the subject and which have served me well. 

All images Getty


  1. great tips all.

    It seems in America, the cheese course is what is served with drinks in the living room before dinner!!!

    How nice to have a seperate course with some lovely wine and we often do that at Linderhof. Everyone seems to enjoy it and is somewhat suprised by it.

  2. What an outstanding and much needed post on cheese. I agree about the importance of terroir in pairing cheese and wine.

    Thank you!

  3. Excellent post. I had Stilton with a glass of port earlier this week - the cheese being at its best around Christmas and New Year. Clearly an exception to the terroir rule but perhaps the Englishness of the combination is the connection

    One quibble - I would not use a spoon on Stilton. Wedges are what I prefer.

    As I say, excellent post!

  4. There's one cheese combination that perhaps is not as well known as it should be and that is fruitcake and cheese - I think, a combination peculiar to Lancashire, England. Each year I make two fruitcakes, one a Dundee with its emphasis on currants,and the other a regular Christmas cake which is lighter, relatively speaking, thought still packed with dried fruit and glace peel. A good Cheddar works well as does the aforementioned, sharp, mature, Lancashire. A blue muddies, though I wouldn't refuse it, especially with glass of Pedro Ximenez sherry.

  5. The Devoted ClassicistJanuary 24, 2011 at 5:08 PM

    Years ago as a student in France, I became very fond of the cheese course at the evening meal, especially if the main course was liver or some other food I did not care for. Recently I was reminded of this when friends invited me to dinner at their house the week before Thanksgiving. They had brought the chef from the rented house in the south of France over for two weeks of dinner parties. Three assorted cheeses with some special crackers were served prior to dessert. The cheese course is a wonderful tradition.

  6. Please remove my photo of the stilton cheese that you stole from me from your blog post. This photo is available for licensing through Getty. If you wish to use it please purchase a license here: Thank you.

  7. Paula

    I am sorry about the image you say I stole from you. It said royalty free and I credited all images used to Getty. I thought that was all i needed to do.

    If I were going to steal something, one of the farthest things from my mind would be a Getty image for a generic post on cheeses.

    Your image has been removed and substituted for another.


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