Cheese! (pronounced “Cheece!,” which rhymes with Greece) was one of Julia’s first words. She loves cheese, and not just the mild ones like Provolone and that weird tasteless string cheese that people tend to feed their kids. (At a Christmas party last year she was crawling around stealing pieces of Stilton off unattended plates). About the only cheese she’s ever rejected is the processed American variety. Once she got a grilled cheese sandwich at a diner that turned out to be filled with that ersatz fromage. She took one bite and spit it out. Good girl.
Inspired by Julia, I’ve started serving a cheese course at dinner from time to time. Traditionally, a cheese course is served between the main course and dessert and includes at least three, and sometimes more, cheeses of varying types and flavors. This approach can be luxurious (and educational), but I’ve found that it can also overwhelm my palate and my appetite. I prefer to offer just one great cheese, or maybe two that are related by milk, method or region. This keeps the cheese course lighter and more focused. It’s also easier and less expensive. If you’re serving a rich, creamy cheese, the cheese course can also take the place of dessert, particularly if you follow up with a plate of chocolates or cookies to satisfy guests with a sweet tooth.
Pairing fruit, nuts, honey and preserves with cheese is a nice way to add interest and seasonal flavor to the course. I sometimes also serve a small handful of salad leaves to contrast with the rich flavors of the cheese and help refresh the palate. A cheese course also needs a little bread. Breads containing nuts or fruit can work well with some cheeses, but they can clash with others. I usually stick to slices of plain baguette to provide a neutral background for the big flavors on the plate.
From time to time, I’ll post cheese course that I particularly like. Here’s the first. The centerpiece is Humboldt Fog, an elegant, soft, surface-ripened goat’s cheese from California. It has an almost fluffy texture and a pleasantly tangy flavor that’s not too “goaty.” It pairs beautifully with fresh black figs (which are now in season) and just a bit of peppery baby arugula, dressed only in a few drops of good olive oil. For wine, this cheese course is compatible with a wide range of reds, but I think a grassy Sauvignon Blanc would also be delicious. Humboldt Fog is available at many good cheese shops and online at www.cypressgrovechevre.com.