Learn how to present your different French cheeses to guests with our expert guide
No French dinner party is complete unless it includes a cheese platter, presented after the main dish and before dessert. It is the kind of sight that reveals unsuspected reserves of appetite in most diners, who may at first declare they’ll just have “un petit peu, pour goûter!” and soon dig in with gusto, relishing the care with which the different cheeses were selected.
In French homes, a platter will typically feature at least three kinds of cheese and rarely more than six, unless there are a lot of guests.
The cheeses you choose should first and foremost reflect your personal taste, but the idea is to offer a harmonious variety: different types of milk (cow, goat, or sheep’s), different strengths (from mild through medium to pungent) and different families. You might, for example, pick a fresh and milky goat’s cheese, a soft cheese with surface mould such as Camembert, a washed-rind cheese such as Munster, a pressed mountain cheese such as Emmental and a blue-veined cheese such as Roquefort.
You could also put together a platter focusing on a single type of milk, or a single family of cheeses, provided each one brings an interesting voice to the chorus. If you lay your hands on one particularly superb piece of artisanal cheese – a venerable Comté, an explosive Époisses de Bourgogne or a silken Mont d’Or – don’t hesitate to let it play solo.
The different cheeses should be arranged on a wooden, glass or marble board (no plastic!) without touching each other, and in the order in which they will best be enjoyed – from mildest to most pungent. Unless it’s a very casual dinner with close friends, the cheeses should be freshly bought and untouched. Small cheeses, such as Rocamadour or Saint-Marcellin, are served whole; medium-size cheeses, such as Camembert or Munster, are served whole or halved; cheeses from larger wheels, such as Tomme or Comté, are served in neat wedges.
In its simplest expression, a cheese platter is served with ample provisions of bread and nothing else. Fresh baguette cannot be beaten, but crusty artisan bread in thick slices is an excellent option, too. Speciality breads with different blends of flours, nuts, herbs, or dried fruit are quite tempting, but I prefer a more neutral medium that won’t draw attention away from the cheese. As for crackers, serve them if you must, but it is a rather un-French thing to do.
A green salad on the side works as an accompaniment (but not if you had salad as a first course). Choose mild-flavoured greens (lambs’ lettuce, Romaine, butterhead or green-leaf lettuce) and dress them lightly with a touch of quality vinegar and a gurgle of olive or walnut oil, so as not to clash with the other flavours. Fresh fruit is also a great companion to cheese: grapes, plums and sliced apples or pears help to refresh and cleanse the palate between cheeses, and will complement almost all of them. I also enjoy fresh figs and fresh nuts.
The platter is passed around the table for each guest to help themselves, using the knife you will have set on the platter (a special cheese knife if you have it, any non-serrated table knife otherwise). Each guest can then discreetly wipe the blade on a piece of bread between cheeses to avoid staining one with the other.
The proper way to cut a piece of cheese depends on its shape, but the basic rule is that every serving should have an equal proportion of heart and rind. Small cheeses are cut in halves or quarters; round or square cheeses are cut in triangular wedges like a cake; logs are cut in slices; and long wedges of cheese are cut lengthwise in stick-like pieces, working your way from the thinnest end up to the thickest, where the rind is.
As for the wine pairing, gone are the days when red was considered the only option: in fact, a high tannin content doesn’t agree with dairy produce, so white wines are a better choice than robust reds. There is no absolute rule: pairing a cheese with a wine from the same region is a safe bet, but what makes the exercise difficult is that each cheese would really warrant its own wine companion.
If your platter features a wide variety of cheeses, opt for the lightest pairing: leaving the strongest cheese slightly under-supported is better than overwhelming the mildest. If you feel the tension rising just thinking about this, just continue with the last wine served during the meal – many people do this and live to tell the tale.
Look for artisanal cheese in gourmet shops, farmers’ markets and small dairy farms. When in France, seek out local gems that don’t make it to the national distribution networks, and – unless you’re pregnant or have a compromised immune system – be sure to sample cheeses made with raw, unpasteurised milk; the depth of flavour is incomparable.
Wrap each cheese individually and loosely in parchment or wax paper, not plastic: cheese is a living thing and it has a right to breathe. Cheese is best kept in a cool, dark, and well-ventilated place such as a cellar, but the fridge will do. Take it out 30 minutes to an hour before serving to restore to room temperature; the flavours will be fuller and the textures smoother.