FORMAGGI: The Cheese Course

Old Jul 31st, 2007, 05:25 PM
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FORMAGGI: The Cheese Course

As much as I've researched for trips to France & Italy, I've never mastered "the cheese course". In fact, I've never ordered it. I guess I'm intimidated by that which I don't understand. And I'm surprised at how little discussion there is about it.

Could we get a discourse going here? We're going back to Italy and will be eating in some fine restaurants. What is it about the cheese course? Is the digestive value? Or does it hit the palate right at that point in the meal? And how do you know what cheese(s) to order?

Enlightenment will be most appreciated!
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Old Jul 31st, 2007, 05:33 PM
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The cheese course usually comes before dessert.
I always ask the server to give me the local cheeses wherever I am, but prefer goat cheeses.
You can google Italian cheess and find out what they are like and make notes of which you think you may prefer.
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Old Jul 31st, 2007, 07:15 PM
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Please indulge me. I promise I'm trying to learn and I really, really want to try it. But I don't know what to expect.

Does one eat the cheese with bread? Is it just cheese. Or do they sometimes add nuts or other things? I've read about drizzling honey or perhaps balsamic over the cheese. How would you know to do this?

Does the waiter remove the rind? Are hard cheeses eaten by hand?

Those are the kinds of questions I have and haven't found answers to on Google.
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Old Jul 31st, 2007, 07:18 PM
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Oh, one last question. Do you have cheese AND dessert. Or does the cheese course replace dessert (perhaps with fruit)?
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Old Jul 31st, 2007, 07:39 PM
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It's been my experience that they bring you the cheese (several different kinds) served with whatever the restaurant chef decides (honey, fruit, crackers, if anything) and you can eat with your fork or .. I eat with my hands, which I hope is ok - not really sure. I don't remember getting to pick the kinds of cheeses. It was like a sample. But others may have different experiences.
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Old Jul 31st, 2007, 07:46 PM
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also just relax, ask the waiter what he/she recommends you do. each restaurant will be slightly different i'm sure.
we can look forward to you sharing your experiences with us when you return.
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Old Jul 31st, 2007, 07:53 PM
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Don't expect the waiter to trim the rind. It's easy and you'll learn what to eat and what to jetison.

Any cheese with a plastic or wax rind should be trimmed. But, cheeses with a flour type of cover can be eaten.

I've had harder cheeses served with grapes. Sometimes I'll just a chunk of harder cheese and cut it down to smaller sizes for munching.

In my case, I like bread with the softer cheeses. Some people will like butter on the bread too.

Sometimes I'll order the cheese and decide not to have a dessert. Once in awhile I'll order both.

Easy your earning about cheeses with your salad course. Order the tomato and Mozzarela salad. This cheese varies in Italy but it's always better than elsewhere.

Experiment and ask the waiter too. Many wines are marry with special cheeses. Again, ask the waiter. But don't order nice cheese with a CocaCola.

Blackduff
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Old Jul 31st, 2007, 09:16 PM
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Do try a cheese course, it can be fun. That being said, I'm more familiar with ordering cheese courses in France than Italy, but I'll assume there are some similarities.

As others have said, the procedure will vary from restaurant to restaurant, and your waiter will help you out. If the restaurant has a large cheese cart or tray (not all do), the waiter will bring it over for you to choose. The waiter will describe the cheese for you; I'm sure not even local people recognize the cheese merely by sight. Usually, they will include many local cheeses and some more nationally-known cheeses. You may only recognize a few of them, especially in terms of the local cheese. Technically, I guess, you could have as much of as many kinds of cheese as you want. But I usually stop at four or five types, and let the waiter determine the sizes of the servings. If there's a small cheese plate or cart, you may not have any choices, and the waiter will bring out a combination of cheeses already on a plate.

There's usually a variety of goat, cow and sheep's milk cheese, a variety ranging from mild and soft to hard and stronger, or more pungent. Let the waiter know what you prefer, or if you want a wide variety, and let her (or him) make the final selection. Note that you may find several types of the same cheese; for example, a more aged pecorino, that's more like what you'll see in the U.S., as well as a younger, soft and mild pecorino. They will almost taste like totally different cheeses.

One cheese server (I'm sure there's a word for that person) once told me that you should eat your cheese from most mild to strongest (which makes sense, really), and that the person serving your cheese should place it on your plate in order from mildest to strongest, but I have noticed since then that servers at other restaurants don't seem to place the cheese in any particular order. So I eat it in the order that I feel like.

I usually have a cheese course instead of a dessert, but you could definitely have both. (Are you in the mood for something sweet or savory after your main course?) Just depends on how much food your stomach can hold, I guess.

In general, Italians (and the French) cut their cheese and eat it with knife and fork. They generally don't put it on a piece of bread, then put the bread-and-cheese combination into their mouths, but instead, eat the bread separately (but still as part of the cheese course). But really, eat it however you want. Just enjoy!
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Old Jul 31st, 2007, 10:41 PM
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The American friends I met over the last fortnight are going to be tee'd off about this reply, but it's fair to say that I really didn't understand why so many questions lik this are asked here (you may think you're the first, Jeanne, but you're not). Having spent two weeks in cheese free Cape Cod, I now understand. There is no cheese in America!

And starting from that base it's quite hard to answer the question. I write a as a cheese lover, who owns and READS at least 4 books cataloguing cheese and one on its care and maintenance (I know; sad git, amn't I?)

The way cheese is done in a fine restaurant will be different from how it is done in a cafe and will vary from place to place. So, first rule is.. ask. Do you have a cheese board? What cheeses are you serving today?

If they name cheeses you don't know, ask what they are like. Stating the blindingly obvious, you get cow milk cheese, goat milk cheese and sheep milk cheese (I'm sure you get others but I've never seen them being sold). A major distinction, and one you may find hard to practice before you leave, is the difference between pasturised and non-pasturised. The former is, as a rule, less ...fun than the latter. If you are pregnant or old, you may want to watch non-pasturised or raw milk cheeses. Personally, I rather be ill than not eat them

You may discover that you particulraly like sheep, or not; ditto goat; ditto cow.

They will come hard, soft, semi-hard, rind washed, blue. Experiment and work out what you like.

Sometimes you'll get a wee plate with a few slices of cheese, a grape or two and a nut, a piece of celery, some balsamic vinegar. IME, they won't pour the balsamic. That's your choice. Try it and see if you like it.

They will always serve bread or biscuits with it- rarely butter. They will give you a knife to cut or spread it. Me, I eat it on its own.

It's a separate course from the pudding, so you will not be out of order to have both, but you will be perfectly OK if one of you has pudding and the other, cheese at the same time. (I have been refused coffee at eth same time as my cheese. The man didn't say anything; he just didn't bring the coffee till I'd finished the cheese, then he gave me a lecture about my digestion; but that was in France).

If you want, I'll give you my take on various Italian cheeses, but you'd be better advised to just try them for yourself.

And, having been rude about the lack of cheese worthy of the name in America, I'm told you can get some in some specialist shops and Trader Joe's name kept coming up.

Just remember what the Bretons say. "Il faut garder une place pour le fromage"

Have a great trip.
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Old Aug 1st, 2007, 01:49 AM
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There's a ghastly new dumbing down spreading around Europe, and I suggest you look at what other diners are getting before ordering the cheese course.

In a depressingly high proportion of medium-priced French places (€30 or thereabouts prix fixe) we visited recently, they'd taken to dishing out plates of cheese they'd already cut, served at the temperature Americans serve the muck they pass off as beer and therefore having about as much taste. The cheeeses tended to be a selection of the country's (not the region's) greatest hits.

In France, you could sometimes make this palatable by waiting half an hour over another half bottle of claret till the cheese had got to an eatable temperature, though you'd still be eating stuff your local supermarket would be selling (at any rate if it was a Tesco or Waitrose, though even Wal Mart's Asda can normally match what's on offer in some parts of France these days).

In Italy - which has some wonderful cheese, but all too often has restaurants serving industrially-made mediocrity - an eatery so contemptuous of its customers is likely to be serving some pretty dull cheese. For some reason, the cheese course is the only bit of the meal I've ever felt short changed over anywhere in Italy.

My own solution to Italian places serving stuff Kraft might have made has always been to ask for just a chunk of Parmesan if other eaters seem to be getting something that looks to have come straight from a factory. And it's always worked (especially if it's a really big chunk and you've got at least three glasses of decent red to wash it down). Otherwise, skip cheese altogether.

Incidentally, I've hardly ever encountered a cheese waiter in a place that still serves cheese properly (I don't think there is a specific word like sommelier) who wasn't really keen to tell you practically everything - including the lactating beast's Christian name and star sign - about the cheeses on offer. If anything, even more the case in serious places in Italy, which doesn't have such well known varieties. There's often just a hint of mild contempt if a French waiter thinks you don't know what a Fourme d'Ambert or a Tome de Savoie is.
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Old Aug 1st, 2007, 02:21 AM
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Your replies are helping me already (nanabee: I'm relaxing!). I recognize now that my timidity about cheese is like that I feel when I start a new language...hesitant and somewhat fearful of making a mistake. I guess I'll overcome my newby fears the same way: plow ahead, listen/learn, and practice. I also try to learn the correct phrases for expressing my neophyte status and desire to learn.

FLANERUK: Would you eat parmesan with a fork? Wouldn't it crumble? And, sometimes I see "ricotta" on an Italian menu. How would one go about eating such a soft variety? (Not that I intend to start with that one!).

Again, thanks everyone. Keep it up. I imagine there are several posters around here who will happily benefit from your insights.
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Old Aug 1st, 2007, 03:50 AM
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Hi J,

I usually prefer a cheese course to end a meal instead of a sweet.

This also gives you a chance to finish off your wine, which might not go well with sweets.

In some restos there will be a selection from which you choose, in others you will be given a plate with 3-4 cheeses.

You will want to choose a few different types: a very soft strong-flavored; a semi-soft, mild flavored; a firm or hard mild or strong - for example.

Your waiter will explain what the different cheeses are.

You have your cheese with some bread.

Sometimes, there will be fruit as well.

Enjoy.

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Old Aug 1st, 2007, 03:57 AM
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PS,

>sometimes I see "ricotta" on an Italian menu. How would one go about eating such a soft variety? <

With a knife, held in the right hand, pick up some cheese. Spread it on a piece of bread held in the left hand.

Set knife down.

Eat bread and cheese from left hand.

With the right hand, lift wine glass and sip.

Repeat as necessary.
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Old Aug 1st, 2007, 04:01 AM
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On eating chunks of Parmesan:

Fingers came before knives or forks. Anyway, decent Parmesan (and if it's not decent Parmesan, they should have their Italian passports taken away) should be moist enough to cut cleanly with a reasonably sharp knife. If any in our fridge ever gets drier, it makes a good training aid for the pooch (who'd probably walk through fire for it, or for a bit of extra mature Gouda), or will still be OK for some kinds of cooking - but it's beyond eating.
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Old Aug 1st, 2007, 04:15 AM
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Sheila, I wouldn't jump so quickly from the premise that there is no cheese on Cape Cod (can't argue with that) to the conclusion that there is no cheese in America. There are still (a declining number of) small cheese shops in the provinces, and in New York there are a couple of restaurants that specialize in the art.

There are also some local artisanal cheese makers in western Massachusetts and must be in other places. There just isn't a great supply, demand, or distribution.

That said, I can't wait to get to France and sample it all. No comparison. Not teed off in the least.
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Old Aug 1st, 2007, 05:15 AM
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Sheila - Perhaps you didn't look in the right stores for cheese in America. My local liquor store carries several hundred different cheeses. Some are local artisan cheeses and others are imported.
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Old Aug 1st, 2007, 05:20 AM
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On our first trip to Paris we ordered the cheese course and the chef decided what to put on the plate. We liked the selection so much that we asked the waiter to tell us the names of the cheeses, in case we wanted to order it elsewhere.
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Old Aug 1st, 2007, 05:27 AM
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Jeeze!!!! This beats the "What do I wear when I'm in ...?" topic!!!
I never knew there could be such cheesey talk on Fodors!
OK! Serious now! Whenever I do a dinner party I always serve cheese before dessert. A selection of French Brie,English Cheddar,Stilton and whatever else the supermarket has on offer. Crackers, grapes, sometimes figs chutney or celery are served with it. I think it's nice to finish off the wine with before eating dessert, though I never usually eat dessert after cheese.
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Old Aug 1st, 2007, 05:37 AM
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To some extent, Sheila is correct. From what I remember, the only unique cheese in the US is the Monterey or also called Jack.

All of the other cheeses are replicas of other cheeses claimed to a different country. Stilton is made and sold in the US but it's an English Stilton cheese. Same as many other cheese.

Are these Expat Stiltons good? Yes, but the real Stilton can be much better.

I've bought Camembert in Osaka/Kobe Japan. It even had the "President" label, etc. The taste was nul-it tasted like white rubber.

Pasturizing of the process to make cheese makes a big difference in the end result. Living cheeses will be getting better and better, until it's finished. But parturized cheese will be a non-starter. It's never to get better.

A lot of the cheeses sold in the UK are similar to the processed cheeses in the US. England has a quantity of unique cheeses but France has over 365 distinct cheeses. I'm trying to eat through my list before I'm dead.

Blackduff
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Old Aug 1st, 2007, 07:07 AM
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I, too, don't know much about the cheese course and have only recent started my forays into blue cheese and gorgonzola....I would love to learn more about this topic as well!
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