The best cheese in restaurants is found where the chefs and waiting staff are passionate about the product they serve and have taken the time to learn about its provenance. By doing so they are more likely to care about serving cheese at its optimum quality and, if pertinent, only when in season.
The first step towards serving good cheese is to select a good cheesemonger who knows his product well and will willingly advise you on the origins and processes used in making specific cheeses and the best cheeses to serve at a particular time of year. They should be happy to allow you to taste the cheese before buying.
When putting together a cheese board, traditionally made, farmhouse cheeses are preferable to those cheeses that are mass-produced in factories. Artisan cheeses have a far superior flavour and character to those made by the large manufacturers.
Unpasteurised cheeses, generally, add a extra flavour and character too – so watch out for their availability.
Ensure the cheese you serve is of the highest quality
• Smell the cheese. The aromas should be earthy, fruity and musty. If you can smell ammonia, the cheese is past its best and should be thrown out.
• The skin or rind should not show spots of mildew as this is a sign of damp storage.
• Hard, semi-hard and blue cheeses should not be dry when cut.
• Soft cheese when cut should not be runny, but should have a delicate creamy consistency.
• Keep all cheese in a cool, dry, well-ventilated cold store or refrigerator at a temperature of 8-10 C, with a high humidity of 85% or higher
• Keep cheese away from other foods which may be spoiled by the smell.
• Wrap the cut surface of cheese in greaseproof or waxed paper to prevent drying out. The natural rind can be exposed to the air.
• Blue cheeses should be wrapped all over and kept separate from other cheeses to prevent the spread of mould spores.
• Remove cheese from the refrigerator or cold store about one hour before service.
Compiling a cheese board
When putting together a traditional cheese board or trolley, chefs and restaurateurs should think about offering customers a selection of cheeses, choosing at least one from one of the following groups – fresh, soft white, semi-soft, washed-rind, crumblies, hard, blue and flavoured.
Another consideration is to offer cheese made from the milk of different animals including cows’, sheep’s, goats’ and buffalos’ – as they all provide a different flavour.
Include seasonal cheeses when they are available as these can create added interest. Some cheeses are not seasonal and can therefore be included on the cheese board all year round. These include Brillat-Savarin, Cheddar, Coulommiers, Lancashire, Mimolette and Reblochon. Amongst the best summer cheeses are Crottin de Chavignol, Epoisses and Saint-Marcellin; whilst cheeses that are best in winter include Brie, Pont-l’Eveque, Stilton and Vacherin Mont-d’Or.
Considering adopting a theme for your cheese board. For instance, why not offer a British only selection as there are now over 450 cheeses made in the UK and Ireland to choose from (see article on British cheese). Obviously, if you are a French or Italian restaurant, stick to the cheeses made in the relevant countries – there are plenty to choose from.
Restaurants in the country could offer a comprehensive selection of cheeses from the local area.
Whatever cheeses you offer, the most important thing to remember is to choose cheeses which contrast in strength, taste and texture. A large number of cheeses are not necessary – what is more important is the quality and the relationship of the cheeses to each other. In a small restaurant, a choice of three or four cheeses is perfectly acceptable. Some restaurants may even choose to offer just one cheese in the peak of condition.
Beyond the cheese board
More restaurants are choosing to eschew the cheese board or trolley in favour or serving cheese ready plated. This allows for better portion control and avoids the storage difficulties of having a board or trolley in the restaurant. However, whatever method you choose to serve cheese, the waiting staff should be knowledgeable about the cheeses they are serving, both in respect of their strength and provenance.
Like the themed cheese board, different themed cheese plates could be offered – either reflecting cheeses from one area or country, or maybe devoted to a specific type, such as a blue cheese plate or a plate of different sheep’s cheeses.
If the cheeses you offer you customers are carefully selected and in peak condition, the accompaniments you serve should be simple and kept to a minimum in order not to detract from the main element of the course.
Where appropriate offer fruits, nuts or salad ingredients which will work well with specific cheeses. Crisp apples, for instance, are a good accompaniment to Cheddar or other hard cheeses, whilst pears, grapes or figs are good with blue cheeses and strawberries with mild, soft, goats’ cheeses.
Rather than fresh fruit, a fruit cheese (fruit boiled to a solid consistency with half as much sugar as jam) is a pleasant alternative. The flavours are endless – plum, fig and orange, and quince all work particularly well with cheese.
Walnuts, pecans and hazelnuts are amongst the best nuts to serve with cheese.
When it comes to salad accompaniments, celery works well with most cheeses. The best leaves to serve at those that are bitter, rather than sweet – so choose chicory, endives, Batavia or sorrel. Watercress is particularly good with Stilton and other blue cheese, whilst mizuna and rocket goes well with mild sheep’s or goats’ cheeses.
Whether you serve bread or biscuits is a personal choice, but whatever you decide, the plainer the accompaniment the better in order to highlight the flavour and character of the cheese. Sour dough, wholemeal and white milk breads all work well, as do water biscuits and oatcakes.