An Illustrated Guide to Cheese Etiquette

City Connect introduces Adrian Fernand as our latest Features Writer. He’s the man behind the etiquette blog, idobelieveicamewithahat.com, and we’re very pleased that Adrian will be sharing his pearls of etiquette wisdom with us over the coming weeks and months. His first article for City Connect looks at the etiquette involved when preparing a cheese board. 

If I could subsist on a diet comprised solely of cheese and champagne, I would be a very happy man. My bowels tend to disagree. Its origins are made of legend (and cheese)—an accidental discovery by storing milk in a sheep’s stomach lining during a long, hot trek across a desert—and millennia later it still has the ability to satiate the most gluttonous of gourmands.

Cheese is the kind of food that may be served at any time, in any manner of ways, however, a cheese platter after dinner is probably the most universally accepted practice. Served between the main course and pudding/dessert, it rounds a meal, cleanses the palate and adds an extra layer of decadence to a meal. Think of the cheese course as your taste buds taking a trip to the (high-end) strippers, visiting a private suite, being showered in Dom Pérignon Œnothèque and then escorted out without shelling out a cent. Outrageous!

Becoming a cheese connoisseur is easier than you would think. Despite there being thousands of commercially available cheeses, they tend to fall into four categories: hard, soft, blue and freaky stuff out of a can. Excluding the latter, these offer a wide range of flavours, sharpness and pâtes—its consistency. Here’s a handy guide to make you master (or mistress) of the platter:

Preparing a Platter

Assembling a cheese platter is as easy as three steps: 1) Select your cheeses; 2) Select your accompaniments; and 3) Select your crisp breads. When selecting cheeses, aspire to have a representation of every texture of cheese, a range of sharpness in flavour, and different shapes and colours to be visually interesting. Not only will this present better on the platter, but if some of your guests aren’t partial to one particular type of cheese, chances are they’ll like another. Allow 20-30 grams of each cheese per head, but it’s unlikely that you’ll need any more than 120 grams each.

Secondly, a good platter has a range of accoutrements that enhance the flavour of the cheese and make the experience far more interactive. Some good examples are quince paste, dried muscatels, dried apricots, sliced pears or fresh grapes. Often unusual pairings of flavours are the most complementary, for example, salty and sweet.

Finally, a variety of crisp breads makes for a well-prepared platter. Experiment with various textures and sizes such as grissini breadsticks for runny cheeses, lavosh for firmer cheeses, pumpernickel for fruit cheeses or sliced fresh baguettes as a good all-rounder.

Tips

  • Use a large platter so that there’s room for guests to manoeuvre the knife and place the various accompaniments close to but not against the cheese.
  • If possible, provide a different knife for each cheese.
  • Always serve cheese at room temperature, so remove them from the refrigerator at least half an hour before they’re required and cover with a damp tea towel to ensure they stay at the ideal serving temperature.
  • If you have a large wheel or wedge of cheese, cut what you anticipate your guests will consume and return it to the refrigerator.
  • Cut a couple of ‘serving suggestion’-style slices to demonstrate to guests how they should slice the cheese.
  • When cutting a wedge, slice from centre to the rind; when cutting a slice from a wedge, slice from rind to centre.
  • You may eat cheese unaccompanied with your fingers, but always transfer from the platter to your plate with the utensils provided.

Serving

While ‘cutting the cheese’ has differing meanings depending on the sophistication of your humour, the varying ways of slicing cheese—like most etiquette—stem from practicality. The experience is about sharing the enjoyment and maturation of various cheeses, and ensuring everyone receives their fair share of the spoils of the wheel.

Firstly, every portion of cheese should contain some of the rind: the flavour is never uniform and this practice ensures you experience the full range of flavours from the rind to the centre. Secondly and most importantly, never cut off the nose (or point) of the cheese. Not only is it social suicide amongst those who revere it, but it is considered ignorant and selfish as it contains the ripest flavours. In some circles, it would be like knocking over someone’s grandmother’s ashes in an urn on the mantlepiece and instead of apologising, snorting them up with a rolled-up note.

Here are some diagrams of the different types of cheese and how you should go about cutting them:

Block Cheeses

This is probably the most straightforward of all the cheeses, with cheddar the most common variation. Cheeses in long cylindrical shapes should also be sliced in this manner. If your guest doesn’t know how to slice a block of cheese, you better return them to the kindergarten.

Round and Square Cheeses

It might seem fairly simple how to cut a round wheel or even a square of cheese, but so many people get it wrong. Camembert, brie and Pont l’Evêque are good examples of this type of cheese.

Hard and Semi-Hard Cheeses

This is the type of cheese that seems to confuse everyone. Found often in Swiss-style, Comte, Ossau-Iraty, Colby, gouda, romano and parmesan, slicing is simple and only a tiny bit of the usually dry and brittle (and largely inedible) rind is included.

Blue Cheeses

Not to everyone’s taste, blue cheese has a sharp, biting flavour that for true aficionados is an addictive indulgence. Roquefort and Stilton are great examples of this style that not only tastes spectacular, is an attractive addition to the platter.

Soft Cheeses

Soft cheeses needn’t seem so daunting, and nor should a wedge of it be reduced to a nuclear fallout zone. Brie, Coulomiers and camembert slice better lengthways, starting at the outer for stability and working to the centre before flipping it with care onto crisp bread.

Pyramid or Cone-Shaped Cheeses

While not used commonly, shaped cheeses such as Valancay or Pouligny-St Pierre give height and drama to a platter. Knowing how to slice them correctly takes the drama away.

Cheeses in a Wooden Box

Some cheeses such as Vacherin or Epoisses come in their own little serving dish—a wooden box—and should be served with a teaspoon in their casing. Similarly, some other cheeses may be served with a teaspoon out of a bowl, such as cottage cheese, however, why you would like a bowl of cellulite sitting on your platter is beyond me.

So now that you’re an expert with a refined palate and an appreciation of the different pâtes, the final test lies herein: paying a visit to your local fromagerie and not flinching at the stench. Who knew something that smelt of feet could taste so good?!

This article has been reproduced from idobelieveicamewithahat.com. Copyright Adrian Fernand 2011.

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About Adrian Fernand

Adrian Fernand is a writer specialising in screen, television and fiction. As the Agony Uncle for etiquette and social protocol site, I Do Believe I Came with a Hat, he responds to the quandaries facing polite society in a modern world. He has in excess of 90 pairs of shoes. Follow Adrian on Twitter @AdrianFernand
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