Saturday, December 3rd, 2011
I just received an image of a cheese plate served at an upscale NYC restaurant. The image clearly showed the strongest cheese on the left, the mildest in the middle, and the second strongest (or mildest) on the right. The sender said the waiter informed her the order the cheeses be tasted was unimportant. Alors! If you simply tasted these cheeses from left to right, the strong cheese would leave a much bigger “finish” on the palate than the second one. The subtle nuances in the middle cheese would be missed or overwhelmed. The last cheese might be able to make a final stand, but it would be better appreciated if it had been tasted before the strongest cheese.
Left to right need not be the order one would sample these three, but when the guest suspected something was amiss she asked for the recommended order. To receive the dismissive reply that it did not matter would not fool the true cheese lover. Apparently this server was not in our camp.
We have stressed the importance of progression since the first cheese plate was served at Picholine restaurant nearly twenty years ago. It was obvious that the different cheeses had varying levels of intensity; some had much larger organoleptic profiles than others. The more persistent cheeses made themselves known rather quickly. The blue cheeses lingered longer on the palate than just about every other cheese type. The aged goudas and cheddars had their heft, the aged alpine cheeses had their depth, while most of the pressed sheep milk cheeses seemed to be a little milder, though not as mild as the bloomy rind cheeses. The younger goat milk cheeses had their first impressions but those impressions were overshadowed by the brie-type cow cheeses or the pressed sheep cheeses, or most any other cheese type.
This all may sound a little confusing at first; so many cheeses look the same. Yet it does not take long to recognize larger flavors in different cheese types. As an example in other food types (ones with which that server may be more enamored) you would easily recognize the subtlety of a poached fillet of trout compared to a grilled sirloin of beef. Is that progression not important?
I cannot blame the server for giving the wrong advice, but to be a bit insouciant about it? The first fault lies with the restaurant management for not making sure the servers know appropriate tableside manner. Second: if the restaurant manager or chef does not inform the servers that the order cheeses are tasted does actually matter, this is another concern. The restaurant should not be serving cheese if the management does not know that the order matters.
It may not be a particularly egregious error to eat cheeses out of order but there are logical reasons why you should follow a progression. I recall enumerating my recommended order to Picholine guests who would ignore the advice and dive into the blues anyway. Likely, their palates were obliterated by the dominance of the blues; after tasting one of those, the tastebuds are never quite the same, and are likely unable to distinguish the difference between a Pecorino and a Parmigiano. The idea of tasting cheeses in an order of strength could be one reason why many chefs have espoused the idea of serving the one “perfect” cheese: to avoid confusion or to prevent second-guessing by the guests. Other chefs have a hard time allowing the cheeses to “speak-for-themselves” and resort to stirring multiple ingredients into the cheeses; the original cheese flavors become muddled.
Not to belabor the point, yet I believe that eating cheese in a progression from mild to strong is important. This is especially true if the person tasting the cheeses is not familiar with them. Some of the basic “rules” of progression include the following:
The younger cheeses are generally milder than the older ones, though not always.
The softer cheeses are usually milder than the harder cheeses, though not always.
The blues should be saved for last.
When tasting new cheeses it is helpful to mix up the textures, the animal types, the rinds, or simply the provenances. (This helps you better appreciate the differing aromas and flavors.)
The cheeses made with pasteurized milk are milder that the ones made with raw milk, if the cheeses are otherwise identical.
The saltier cheeses generally follow the less salty ones.
Three otherwise identical cheeses: one made with goat milk, one from sheep milk, and one from cow milk; this would be my recommended order for tasting the three: goat, sheep, and cow.
I recall observing a colleague take this progression order a little too far. The first cheese in his grouping was a goat cheese with a generous coating of blue mold on the outside. It was not a blue-veined cheese but that moldy exterior made it a more assertive cheese than all the others on the plate.
If you are unsure about the progression of the cheeses you will be serving you might check the cheeses’ positions on the CheeseClock™. The same way we constructed our first cheese plates at Picholine: the milder cheeses were at the six o’clock position, the cheeses becoming increasingly stronger as you proceeded clockwise around the plate. You may want to taste the cheeses before your event, though it is good to keep in mind that cheeses go through various stages.
Maître Fromager Max McCalman is one of our foremost authorities on things cheese.