THERE is no doubt a well-chosen interesting cheeseboard encourages customers to have that extra course. This is especially true when it is served in the French fashion - before rather than after the dessert.
However, this should not mean presenting 57 varieties, but a balance of British and continental cheeses, or a special selection of regional specialities, served with bread and biscuits, garnished with black grapes or celery.
This applies equally to outlets as varied as large hotels, to small wine bars or restaurants. What puts some caterers off is that cheese needs special preservation and knowledge, and portion control to prevent waste is not easy. However, as one manufacturer points out, you need never waste left-over cheese, just use it as an ingredient.
The Ilchester Cheese Company has sponsored British Cheeseboard of the Year in the Egon Ronay Hotels and Restaurants guide in the 1993 and 1994 editions. The holder of the title is the Lygon Arms in Broadway, Hereford & Worcester, where the cheese trolley displays only British cheeses sourced from smaller producers.
Most of the cheeses are unpasteurised, giving fuller flavour, and at least two are made with vegetarian rennet. Two goat's cheeses feature - Golden Cross and Devon Ticklemore, as well as Colston Bassett Stilton and Blue Shropshire.
You need someone on your staff who knows, and is passionate, about cheese to produce an excellent cheeseboard, both for aficionados and for customers who want to broaden their palate. This can deter some establishments, but there are many specialist producers and distributors who can provide a wide variety of interesting and good-quality cheese in quantities according to your needs.
Widening the selection to take in continental cheeses gives even more scope, and among the specialist wholesalers is The Cheese Cellar Co in Wimbledon, south London. Luke Fenwicke-Clennell, the company's sales director claims a range of 1,000 different British and continental cheeses, which are supplied to hotels, wine bars and restaurants using an extensive van sales network.
Links with an experienced French "artisan fromager" have produced specialist unpasteurised cheeses, previously little known in Britain. These products have found particular appeal among restaurants with a French flavour.
In 1993, The Cheese Cellar purchased the wholesale business of Paxton and Whitfield, and to accommodate this expansion now operates from a 7,000sq ft unit in Wimbledon, equipped with temperature control and packaging facilities for retail and foodservice.
Ilchester Cheese Company produces a full range of traditional British cheese, and supplies whole waxed varieties for the cheeseboard, including Cheddar, Stilton and Kings Choice - Stilton infused with port, through cash and carry outlets.
JG Quicke in Devon produces traditional farmhouse Cheddars, including a distinctive smoked variety, and a herb one, some pasteurised and some unpasteurised. It offers a national network of 60 wholesalers for both foodservice and retail.
Jeroboams of Elizabeth St, London, offers 200 specialist cheeses, selected from France, and from the small farms of Britain and Ireland, according to the season. The service includes ripening in its own cellars, so the cheeses can be supplied in peak condition, and selection and delivery. Matthew Rosser, wholesale manager, says, "We can advise you on your choice of cheese and its presentation, cutting, wrapping and storage, all helping to make your selection last longer and be more profitable."
Jeroboams' clients include hotels, restaurants, directors' dining rooms - including well-known names such as London's Claridges, which has 60 cheeses a week, all French farmhouse, wrapped and delivered daily.
At the other end of the spectrum is the motorway service area, the newest of which is the Road Chef Clacket Lane services on the M25. Here the idea of a cheeseboard is not feasible, according to catering manager, John Powles.
"We offer cheese and biscuits, rather than a board with cut cheeses. For a start, cut cheeses would not remain fresh-looking in our refrigerated cabinets all day, and we don't want customers handling them.
"So we offer a selection of pre-packed portions, both British and continental, supplied by Express Foodservice. The motorway service area tends to attract customers who don't sit around, but want a good meal fast, so they can continue their journey," Powles explains.
Martin Hawkes, marketing manager of Express Foodservice, highlighted to delegates at last month's Leatherhead Food Research Association's Dairy Conference some of the difficulties which cheese faces within foodservice.
Part of the problem was that the sector was very fragmented and cheese supplied for cheeseboards, pre-packed portions, pizza toppings and burgers went through many different routes of distribution, he said.
Cash and carry outlets accounted for 32% of the distribution and wholesalers 35%, but accurate data was difficult to obtain. Prices of speciality cheeses could be high, but quantities ordered could be small. Cheese wholesalers need a detailed directory, rather than relying on recommendation by those "in the know", Hawkes claims. o