Cheese: Serving and Conserving
Many of us remember “The Cheese Counter” 20 years ago, with about a dozen pasteurized choices of (rock hard) camembert and brie, “tasteless Swiss” (likely produced in Norway) and the inevitable Kraft slices. This is definitely not an example of how things were better in the old days. The explosion in the choice of cheeses at our local supermarket is proof of and a compliment to our increasingly sophisticated taste. Fairly, it’s a compliment too to the purveyors, who continue to introduce new taste sensations. If there’s a downside, it might be too much choice, and if that’s true then most of us are happy to live with the problem! The range of tastes and textures is excellent — and available year-round.
Not unlike tasting wine, there is a mild protocol to serving and conserving cheese. And similar to the common sense involved in presenting and serving wine, there are not dissimilar conventions about cheese.
We have all been annoyed with waiters who grip the bottle, splash the wine like a garden hose and fill our glass near the brim before we can blurt out “Stop!” Truthfully, “annoyed” is an inadequate description, while “throttle-the-waiter” might be too aggressive. So too with the cheese platter: where the first guest to select their portion corrals the soft centre or the heart of the most mature piece, leaving you with a wedge of rind.
But if the techniques involved in serving wine are more subtle and even considered by some a trifle effete, dealing with cheese involves only a bit of common sense. It’s a kind of “do unto others” convention. Cut your portion with the next person’s selection in mind. Simple stuff! There are hard, soft and semi soft cheeses, but essentially two shapes — round and rectangular.
So when you cut a wedge from round or pyramid-shaped cheeses, carving your slice at an angle from the centre out to the edge (like an hour on a watch face) you are sampling the full texture which assures that you’ll savour the range of flavours on the palate. And you’re leaving the next person the same opportunity to enjoy the taste and texture.
Square and rectangular cheeses are usually uniform in taste at the centre or the outside edge. So neatness is the guide. A simple slice across the length or width will do nicely, though with Roquefort and other blue cheeses, cutting a “tab” like folding the page of a book is considered polite. The cheeses remain appetizing in appearance for the next person and the portion on your plate will have the range of flavour and uniform texture in the mouth.
Not unlike a taste-neutral piece of bread or biscuit that is used to cleanse the palate between wines served at a tasting, so a crunchy baguette or a neutral Carr’s style biscuit is a perfect carrier for each of the cheeses on your plate. Or, a more Old World convention to get the full flavour is to simply cut and taste using knife and fork: no mini-tray for these traditionalists!
In general, it is preferable to taste the younger cheeses first as they show less intensity than the more mature examples on your plate, and the milder varieties come before the (deep blue) more assertive cheese. Whether serving cow, ewe or goat, the same light-towards-more-forceful approach usually applies.
It’s particularly interesting to preserve and then serve the same cheeses on the following day(s) since they continue to mature (we’ll explore affinage at another time), even in the fridge or cool pantry. Consumed a day or two later, it often almost feels like we’re eating a different cheese, once the air and time do their work. The intensity increases, the texture initially moves to more runny and then gradually towards dryness. But it’s always interesting and almost always a treat.
If the reasons for protecting that last half of the bottle are as obvious as the how-to do it, then there is a similar how-to for preserving cheese at home. Preserving the taste(s) and avoiding deterioration are the dual purposes. And since the life cycle of cheese is fairly short and the time for it to reach full maturity also brief, your first step is to buy small quantities from your reliable retailer and plan to consume it within a few days. When faced with overripe cheese you are less a cheese taster than victim of consuming smelly fermented milk.
Does the phrase “cool dry place” ring a bell? If an old-fashioned larder is only a dream for city folks, in practice we use the refrigerator as the cheese repository. As it offers the advantage of coolness, the pitfalls are a too-dry environment and the disadvantage of a box where there are so many other foods that can affect the taste of the cheese.
The same logic for wine storage applies to cheese. Soft cheeses (St. Marcellin, brie) first wrapped in plastic wrap and then inserted in a small plastic bag, is quite an effective way to isolate the taste from migrating to other cheeses and absorbing other scents in the refrigerator. Semi soft cheeses (Tomme’s) and hard cheeses (Parmigiano) securely wrapped in greaseproof paper (which you can most often get from your cheese monger) and then in a plastic bag will help preserve the cheese and avoid, or at least inhibit, the cheese from maturing further. Inadequately wrapped cheese will transmit aromas to other food and in due course develop mould.
With literally hundreds of choices now, there’s a world of taste available — and affordable. You can’t always say that about wine!