The cheese course

The cheese course

Justin North
0 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
Steve Brown

The cheese course is a very important part of the French dining structure.

The cheese course can be served as a selection of various cheeses and appropriate garnishes, or as an individual slice of one cheese and a garnish. Traditionally, it is served before dessert but this decision is of course entirely up to you. Cheese can take the place of dessert, or be served after it. It can also appear at the beginning of a meal as part of an hors d’oeuvre selection.

When considering your cheese selection, aim to include a good balance of styles. We have access to some fantastic artisan cheeses, both locally crafted and from around the globe. Your choice can include cow’s milk, goat’s milk, ewe’s milk and mixed milk cheeses. You also have the choice of soft cheeses, including rich triple and double creams; cooked cheeses such as beaufort and gruyère; washed rinds such as livarot, munster and époisses; stilton, gorgonzola, roquefort and other blue cheeses; and semi-hard cheeses such as cantel, reblochon and cheddar.

When purchasing cheese, be guided by quality farmhouse cheeses, crafted according to traditional methods. Avoid mass-produced, factory-made cheeses – they’re great for cheese on toast but should never be included in a quality cheese course. Also consider seasonal variations affecting quality and availability, and purchase your cheese from a reputable store that specialises in sourcing quality local and international cheeses. These specialists will have the passion and knowledge to help you make your selection, offering you blue cheese that’s moist, triple creams oozing with lusciousness, and washed rinds redolent with that distinct ripe aroma. Most specialist stores will wrap your cheeses in waxed paper, which will allow them to breathe.

When you bring your cheeses home, leave them wrapped in the waxed paper and store them in your refrigerator’s dairy compartment. This will prevent the strong odours of your ripe cheeses mingling with the contents of your fridge. Keep any strong cheeses in an airtight container, so the flavour of more delicate cheeses is not affected.

Blue cheese


Alternatives: valdeón (Spanish), stilton (English) or gorgonzola (Italian).

One of the most famous of all French cheeses, roquefort is a pungent ewe’s milk blue cheese from the south of France. The crumbly, slightly moist white cheese has distinctive veins of blue mould running through it, which provide a sharp tang. Roquefort has a characteristic odour and flavour, with a notable taste of butyric acid. The overall flavour sensation begins slightly mild, before waxing sweet, then smoky, and fading to a salty finish. The cheese has no rind; the exterior is edible and slightly salty. Roquefort is high in fat, protein and minerals, with each kilogram of finished cheese requiring around 4.5 litres of milk. A typical wheel of roquefort weighs between 2.5 and 3 kg, and is about 10 cm thick.

In 1925, roquefort was the first cheese to obtain an Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) label, guaranteeing that the traditional production methods and geographical origins of the cheese are controlled. The ewe’s milk used to produce the cheese is also under strict AOC control. The benchmarks for production have been set by producers such as the Carles family, who have been making the cheese for generations, according to rigorous methods and entirely by hand. The cheese is ripened in cellars beneath the village of Roquefort sur Soulzon, and has a minimum affinage (maturation period) of four months.

Washed-rind cheese


Alternatives: munster (French), taleggio (Italian) or livarot (French).

A perennial favourite of fans of strong-smelling cheese – reputedly including Napoleon – époisses is a pungently flavoured washed-rind cheese from Burgundy. The remarkable cheese was first made by monks in the Abbaye de Citeaux, in the heart of the region. Its spoonable, silky paste has salty and creamy notes, achieved through rather complicated traditional production methods.

Époisses is one of the last remaining French cheeses to involve milk coagulation in its production. The cheese is first washed in salty water, then stored in a humid cellar. After a month, it is washed several times with a mix of rainwater and marc de Bourgogne brandy.

Semi-hard/hard cheese

Comté gruyère

Alternatives: beaufort (French), Quickes cheddar (English) or cantal (French).

This cow’s milk cheese is one of the richest and most popular cheeses in France. It is traditionally produced in the mountains of the Jura, where local farmers bring their milk down to the local cooperatives (fruitières) which are managed by a group of villages. Production is strictly controlled by the AOC, being restricted to the Franche-Comte, eastern Bourgogne, and parts of Lorraine, Champagne and the Rhône-Alps.

The cheese has a firm pate with a sweet, nutty tang, and is regularly rubbed and wiped with brine during its production. Comté is rich in milk, requiring as many as 530 litres of milk to produce just one cheese.

Soft cow’s milk cheese

Delice de bourgogne

Alternatives: bouche d’affinois (French), brie de Nangis (French) or rouzaire coulommiers (French).

This triple cream cow’s milk cheese from Bourgogne is covered in a fine, fluffy white mould. When ripe, the outside of the cheese will be soft, leaving the middle firm. The pate is soft, sweet and buttery, though you may also notice a slight sourness.

Cream is added to the milk stock during curd production, resulting in a minimum fat content of 75%. Double cream cheeses have a fat content of 60 to 70%.

Ewe’s milk cheese


Alternatives: fleur du maquis (French), manchego (Spanish) or romero (Spanish).

This traditional hard-crusted cheese is made from new season’s milk collected by the bergers of the Ossau Valley and Iraty region in the Basque country. Ossau-Iraty is made according to methods that date back 4000 years, and it’s claimed to be the world’s oldest surviving traditional means of cheese-making. The cheese was granted an AOC label in 1980.

The lightly pressed cheese has a washed and hand-salted rind, and is matured in a humid cellar for at least 90 days. It has an oily textured pate and a nutty, fruity, olive-like flavour.

Goat’s milk cheese

Delice de bourgogne

Alternatives: st maure caprifeuille (French), florette (French) or st maure de touraine (French).

Fresh chèvre is made almost entirely by using lactic coagulation, which takes 24 hours. The chèvre is then carefully ladled by hand, in order to avoid destroying the delicate curd matrix. The white curd has a moist, mousse-like, fluffy consistency, with retained sweetness, a delicate balance of acidity and a mild, clean, creamy finish. The curd has an average fat content of 45%.

Some recipes for your cheese course

The following ideas feature interesting cheeses that are generally readily available from good cheese stores. The recommended serving size when preparing a cheese course with an accompaniment is 60 g per person – 240 g will serve four.

An idea for blue cheese is to bring 240 g roquefort to room temperature, then serve with 200 g spiced cherries. I prefer the cherries to be served chilled, and moistened with a little of their pickling juices.

A washed-rind cheese such as époisses can be served with crunchy ficelles. Bring 240 g of the cheese to room temperature before serving, so that it is oozing its sweet, luscious pate. Crunchy ficelles are also fantastic with a little toasted crushed cumin seeds added to the basic ficelle dough.

On a lazy summer’s day there’s nothing better than a large chunk of bitey aged cheddar, a jar of Piccalilli and chunks of warm, fresh, rustic country-style bread.

For a taste sensation in the evening, place 160 g seedless dried muscatel grapes in a bowl and cover with 80 ml Pedro Ximenez sherry and 120 ml warm, strong Earl Grey tea. Leave the muscatels to marinate for a couple of hours, until juicy and plump, then serve with 240 g room temperature goat’s milk delice de bourgogne.

At any time of day, Ossau-iraty is marvellous on warm slices of freshly toasted fruit and nut bread.

Finally, as an alternative to dessert, serve big spoonfuls of fresh chèvre with 100 g fresh, sweet almonds and 100 g honeycomb. Delicious!

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