Dinner in Paris: 5 Courses, 8 Recipes, a Story in MORE Magazine + Some Tips on Cheese
1st Course: Hors d’Oeuvre/Aperitif
- Savory Olive Cake, Seaweed Curlicues
- Cream-Coddled Eggs with Mushrooms (pictured above)
- Swordfish with Parsley-Shallot Salad served with
- Onion Carbonara
- Citrus-Zest Spinach
- Oven-Roasted Tomatoes
- Cheese, Cheese, Cheese
- Marie-Helene’s (wonderful, simple, delicious) Apple Cake
For sure this isn’t an everyday meal, but it’s pretty much the way a French meal unfolds: a little nibble in the living room (or, as is often the case in my Paris apartment, in the kitchen), a first course, then a main, cheese and then a dessert … or not. Frequently, cheese will be the last course in a family meal. And while it might just be one cheese — when Mont d’Or is in season, I’ll often serve one box of perfectly ripe Mont d’Or and call it a course in itself — it might also be two or three or more.
If you’re putting together a cheese plate, you want to have a variety of cheeses. You’re looking for an assortment that includes different textured cheeses and cheeses made from different milks. And, of course, they should all be perfectly ripe — an easy achievement if you’re getting your cheese from a trusted cheesemonger; not so easy if you’re shopping self-service someplace where everything is all wrapped up in plastic. If that’s the case, choose the cheeses you know best, so that you can judge their condition. I admit to being a shameless poker and prodder in these situations — and I’m not above sniffing, either.
Cheese should be served at a cool room temperature, so if yours was in the refrigerator, take it out about 2 hours before you’ll need it. And play around with the breads you serve. While the main meal is usually served with a plain bread — baguette or country bread — you can have some fun with the cheese course, serving dark breads or breads with fruits and nuts. And, if you want to do as the French do, if you’re serving a salty blue cheese, like Roquefort, put some butter on the table so that you can spread your bread with it before topping it with the cheese — the butter will tone down the saltiness.
Arrange your cheese platter in any way that you think looks attractive. At restaurants in France, the cheese tray is usually arranged by cheese type, so all the goats will be shepherded to one side of the tray, the sheep to another and the cows will have their own place, too. And then, when you choose your cheese selection, the server will place the pieces on your plate in the order in which you should eat them, which is from the mildest cheese to the strongest, usually ending with a blue cheese. Traditionally, the mildest cheese would be placed at the 12:00 position on your plate and you’d eat your way through the selection clockwise. But these days, the starting point is often 6:00, the reasoning being that it’s the spot closest to you and therefore the most convenient place to begin your adventure.
As for wine, red or white, it’s your choice. For ages and ages, cheese was always served with red wine, often because that was what was drunk during the meal and there was enough left to see diners through the cheese course. But more and more, white wine is becoming the wine of choice with cheese. When I asked my friend Juan Sanchez, he of the wonderful Paris wine shop, La Derniere Goutte, what he would suggest with an eclectic cheese platter, his answer was Chenin Blanc, a white wine most closely associated with the Loire Valley.
Now for the tricky part — you can read about in the More story — how to cut the cheese when the platter comes your way. The rule of thumb is that you should cut each cheese so that after you’ve sliced off what you want, the remainder looks like a miniature of how it started out. Of course this is impossible and can’t be taken literally, but it’s good to keep in mind. You can’t cut domes so that they look anything like a dome after the first cut, so domes and pyramids and rounds, like whole Camemberts, are cut in wedges or slices like pie. Easy. Big wedges of hard cheese, think a hunk of Comte or Gruyere, are easiest turned on their side and cut (although they should be cut from top to bottom, but you can’t do that at the table without heavy knives and fuss).
There’s no need to worry much about proper cutting (not that I followed my own advice — I bought a book called L’Art de Couper le Fromage, The Art of Cutting Cheese, which had endless geometric diagrams for the variously shaped cheeses!), as long as you don’t commit the cardinal sin of cheese etiquette: Whatever you do, don’t cut off the ‘nose’ of the Brie or other pie-slice shaped cheeses on the platter!
Wedges of Brie and the like should be cut from the tip of the triangle, the ‘nose’, to the base. If you snip off the tip, you’re leaving an ungainly, okay, ugly, piece of cheese. Furthermore, if you take the nose all for yourself, you’ll be taking what’s considered the best part and your fellow diners will think you’re selfish.
And I know you’re not like that.