Monday, February 18, 2013

Cheese Plates

Cheese knowledge includes the ability to match cheeses with complementary or contrasting flavors and textures, how to select and combine different cheeses for a tasting plate or other presentation, and how to meet a customer's request for cheeses with guidelines like "something not too strong" or "a selection of four or five after we've finished our meal of roast lamb with rosemary."

Cheese is eaten after the meal, here. Generally there's a salad following the main course, and then the cheese is brought out and eaten with the last bits of baguette scattered around the table, and then there's dessert (or not). People cook with cheese of course, but much of that is with things like Gruyère or fromage blanc or other fairly generic melting-and-mixing varieties. Cheese is eaten and appreciated by itself, traditionally, with bread alone, buttered or plain. One of the things that is coming into vogue is creating gourmet cheese plates, with the addition of things that are to be eaten with the cheese to enhance it, or at least to just look pretty on the plate. This isn't something that people are going to be doing at home, of course, but we were told that if you're a cheese shop who wants to get some value-added benefit from your cheeses, having a few plates like these to sell with a glass of wine will be good for your business, and your budget.

We had two days that included plating and presentation, as well as information about the various cheese varieties. The first day, M. Le Meunier created an artsy plate (above), and set us loose with knives and cheese and assorted fruits and nuts and vegetables to play with. Since he'd given us an artsy plate as an example, that's what I used for my first plate, using the little bits of fruit more as decoration than as accompaniment, though I did keep that in mind as well; the ground cherry's bright flavor will cut through the funky richness of the Livarot (cow), the tart currants bring out the tangy edge of the Sainte-Maure de Touraine (goat) and the one on the top of the slice hides the hole left when I took out the straw that runs through the middle of these cheeses, and the blueberries add the depth of flavor that the Jeune Autize (goat, but in the style of the traditional cow's-milk Morbier with its middle line of ash) needs when it's young and mild.

We were told to deconstruct the plates, then, and start over, using different cheeses and trying out different styles. We were also encouraged to experiment with plates in different colors and shapes. Obviously some shapes are easier for layout than others. I picked a small black tray and a subdued color palette for my second plate, going towards appearance more than accompaniment. Again, though, if you nibbled the raw Romanesco broccoli you'd get a nicely bitter crumbly bite to contrast with the slightly crumbly rich aged Comté (cow), full of salty lactose/casein crystals. The hazelnuts add crunch to the velvety Munster (cow) and echo its slightly nutty flavor. The walnuts are an obvious choice to go with the Trappe Échourgnac (cow) which is washed in walnut liquor as it ages by a troupe of nuns in the Dordogne.

On to plate three, and a challenge! Round plates are odd, and glass plates even more so, but I had fun with this one, and cut all the cheese into triangles. I surrounded the Jeune Autize with thin half-moons of black radish (contrast in flavor if not in color), laid out a bit of Comté with some sweet-tart apple slices on fennel fronds, and picked up the grassy notes in the Tome de Brebis Corse (a firm Corsican sheep's-milk cheese) with some fresh celery leaves.

The swizzle of reduced balsamic vinegar and raspberries down the middle is for afters; it wasn't in my original plan, but when I had the cheeses laid out that space needed something, and it would actually be a nice palate-cleanser after the fairly rich flavors of the cheeses.

M. Le Meunier liked my plate arrangements, or at least he didn't have any criticisms; at one point he said something like "you're certainly having fun with this," to which statement I agreed wholeheartedly. He liked the line of blueberries in my first plate, and the way I'd offset the halved wedge of Munster in the second, and my method of dealing with a circular presentation in the third. Then towards the end of the session, after we'd been having some discussions on how much to charge for cheese plates, and whether it would be more of a "cheese tasting" or a "lunch plate featuring cheese" he told us to do a plate that focused on the salad, for a light lunch. The grocery supplies were a bit scattered and ragged at that point, since we'd been cutting and tearing and arranging and dumping bits back into the pile for an hour or two, but I gathered all the different flavors of green I could find and arranged this bouquet on a small plate, with three goat's milk varieties (a square of Jeune Autize, a circle of Sainte-Maure de Touraine, and a triangular wedge of Valençay, an ash-dusted pyramid). As my Facebook friends know, I was flattered to have M. Le Meunier call the other students over to look at this plate, saying that it was an excellent way to keep the design element while still providing a nice-sized salad to go with the cheese.

We were sent home with an assignment for the following week: to come up with an original cheese plate, either a simpler dégustation or a more elaborate lunch-type plate. I had lots of ideas, but decided to go with a range of locations, flavors, and varieties from the north, center, and south of France. Here's what I came up with.

A decorative square of sweet paprika under an offset square of salade de pommes de terre façon choucroute garnie sits to the left; the potato salad has a mild sauerkraut mixed in along with diced carrots and sour pickles and a slightly mustardy dressing, and there's a square of cooked saucisse de Morteau topping some lines of strong mustard below. Choucroute garnie is a traditional dish in northeast France (Alsace, Jura), where Munster is made. At the top is a salad of chopped parsley and mâche dressed in an herbed lemon vinaigrette, with minced fresh red pepper for color and sweetness, and some carrot "flowers" (I'd hoped to find edible flowers in the market, but no luck). I sliced the rind off a wedge of Tome de Brebis Corse and cut it into pieces before grating the rest of the cheese, and arranged the bits of rind under the salad, with the pile of grated cheese to the side to be eaten as is or mixed with the greens. I wanted to recall the high herby pastures where the sheep graze above the Mediterranean, and the piles of hay they eat in the winter. And to finish, slices of a young Bûche de Touraine, which is pretty much the same thing as a Sainte-Maure but without the straw through the middle or the AOC label. I infused some acacia honey with lemon zest and chopped dried apricots and added some sesame biscuits to spread with the cheese and honey.

"Very Anglo-Saxon," remarked Rodolphe Le Meunier, when he saw what I had made and how I'd arranged it on the wooden board. But he praised the design elements, especially the square of paprika. He said he'd never thought of putting mustard with Munster, but when he'd tried it (both with and without the sausage and potato salad) he said it was a very good combination. He liked what I'd done with the rind of the tome, and pointed that out to the others as a good way to deal with the harder cheese rinds that people sometimes don't necessarily want to eat. And he liked the infused honey. Anglo-Saxon or not, I was pleased with my plate, and with his suggestion of increasing the amount of cheese think that it would be a perfectly suitable lunch at any high-end restaurant. She says modestly. But I am adding this picture to my portfolio.

There's a woman named Galina in our class, originally from Russia and a computer programmer who's thinking of moving into a different field. I liked her plate a lot.

After all of our plates had been reviewed and discussed, we were given a task of creating a cheese-only (with decorations of course) tray suitable for five to eight people for the end of a meal, or for a cheese tasting party. We weren't given much time for the exercise, but that was good practice in and of itself. I asked M. Le Meunier for bay leaves, because I wanted to use a runny Rocamadour (mild goat's milk bloomy rind) and we had been talking about the problems of runny cheeses on a cheese plate, both in how it makes it hard to set things up in advance, and how it makes a mess of the plate. We'd been counseled to never pre-cut a runny cheese because of this problem. Ha! I said. I've got a solution. I put fresh bay leaves between the cut wedges to keep the integrity of the cheese; this might not work with a really soupy Camembert, but I'm fairly confident that this circle of Rocamadour could wait on a buffet table like this for over an hour without getting too messy. It was something else that M. Le Meunier hadn't seen or tried before, and he seemed intrigued ...

Because it was supposed to be a "range of cheeses" selection, I started with the Rocamadour, then moved to the Jeune Autize for a little more texture, followed by the Tome de Brebis which upped the flavor quotient, and stuck the circle of Munster on next, since it's a strong-smelling washed-rind cheese. I chunked up some blue cheese (I think it was Roquefort, but I'm not sure) and stuck it in a hollowed-out red pepper, which occasioned the second "Anglo-Saxon!" comment of the day.

The last plate I put together was deemed sufficiently française: Trappe Échourgnac, a round flat bloomy-rind chèvre I didn't identify, orange Mimolette (a hard aged cow's-milk cheese made in northern France and The Netherlands), some of the chunks of blue cheese but not in an Anglo-Saxon pepper bowl, and slices of moist fromage frais on a bed of rose petals, dusted with cracked pink peppercorns.

So do I have a future career in cheese plating and design? Perhaps. But I did have a lot of fun with the assignments, and am grateful that I had the opportunity to play with (if not eat) several hundred dollar's worth of cheese these last few weeks.


  1. I especially liked the round plate!

  2. I imagine with a good glass of red wine may be a bourgeuil