How gourmets enjoy cheese
Gourmets and cheese
Many gastronomes take it as read that a (very) good meal is not complete without an extensive cheese course before the dessert. "Cheese closes the stomach", according to a popular quotation attributed to Pliny, the Roman writer. There may be no scientific evidence for this maxim, but cheese does contain plenty of calcium and phosphate: both healthy minerals.
But let's be honest about it: gourmets don't eat cheese just because it has a bit of calcium in it. Cheese is a virtually unique food: it is healthy because we like eating it and it gives us pleasure. This is well known, for example, to the French – the European champions of epicureanism. For them, cheese – as we said before – must be part of every good meal.
But let's be honest about it: gourmets don't eat cheese just because it has a bit of calcium in it.
The cheese trolley in the restaurant business
In the fine dining area there are three basic ways of making cheese part of a menu. The classic approach is the cheese trolley, which is rolled up to your table after the main course. It generally bears a selection of cheeses made from cow's, sheep's and goat's milk. You select a few of them and eat them with some bread, and perhaps honey or fruity chutneys, nuts and grapes. And with a suitable glass of wine. We'll come back to these extras later. The best cheese trolleys are those that bring you a thoughtful selection. The cheese trolley at Philippe Chevrier's "Domaine de Châteauvieux" restaurant at Satigny near Geneva (2 Michelin stars, 18 Gault-Millau points), for example, has about a hundred cheeses – all of them "Made in Switzerland".
Andreas Caminada, one of the best and most world-famous Swiss chefs, presides over the kitchen of the "Schloss Schauenstein" restaurant in Domleschg (3 Michelin stars, 19 Gault-Millau points). Its selection is deliberately small, but exquisite – with cheeses by Maria Meyer and Martin Bienerth from Andeer, and Willi Schmid from Toggenburg. Just as Caminada's dishes bear their creator's signature, these cheeses are – in a way – the creations of their authors, who craft a product exactly as they imagine it.
The second popular approach to serving cheese in gourmet restaurants is the little cheese board, which comes to your table ready-prepared in the kitchen. It generally consists of five cheeses, selected by the head chef – or by an acknowledged expert like Rolf Beeler from Aargau. This is the approach taken by "2016 Chef of the Year" Nenad Mlinarevic at the "focus" restaurant in the Park Hotel, Vitznau. As Mlinarevic uses only Swiss produce, his cheese board consists of a selection of five Swiss cheeses – plus fruit bread, dandelion honey, preserved walnuts and other little extras.
The specially conceived cheese dish
The third approach to putting cheese on the menu is adopted by many a top chef: they conceive a cheese dish of their own. Sven Wassmer at "Silver" in Vals (2 Michelin stars, 18 Gault-Millau points), for example, one of the greatest talents on the Swiss fine dining scene, combines a piece of Jersey Blue from Willi Schmid in Toggenburg – widely regarded as the best cheese in the world – with finely sliced walnuts and gently dried bilberries, creating a little dish with cheese at centre stage.
What goes best with cheese?
Cheese is an extraordinarily varied item. At its best it reflects the landscape that it comes from, and there are all sorts of ways to enjoy it. The rules about how we do that ought not to be too strict. Purists maintain that the only accompaniments to cheese should be a piece of bread and a glass of wine. But why should that be? A soft Brie with honey and truffles tastes fabulous. So does a powerful alpine cheese with home-made rhubarb chutney, and a cream cheese made from goat's milk with apricot jam, not too sweet, spiced with thyme.
Master affineur Rolf Beeler, one of Switzerland's foremost cheese connoisseurs, has been tasting, developing, maturing and selling cheese for 40 years. He agrees that a good, ripe cheese needs nothing to support it but bread and good wine, but he also says: "It's also interesting to experiment with honey, chutney and fig mustard to create new taste experiences, naturally." Asked which wines to pair with cheese, Beeler gives a few examples:
Assembling the cheese board
The high fat content in cheese is basically good for wine, says Beeler, who once trained as a teacher. He puts a varied cheese board together using the following types:
Cheese as nibbles
Beeler's preferred nibbles are simply a few chunks of six-year-old Sbrinz with a glass of Petite Arvine from the Valais. Beeler is a fan of Sbrinz: he emphatically prefers this typical Swiss cheese to any Parmesan, and he says that as well as being the original model for European hard cheeses, Sbrinz is also better than the famous hard cheese from northern Italy, with a much more interesting flavour. That's a matter of opinion, of course, but you can't brush aside the fact that the rich variety of flora in a Swiss alpine meadow, the many different grasses, herbs and flowers, give their own aromas to the milk – and later to the cheese.
So if you want to give your guests a cheese treat, first pick a few different types, select a wine to go with them, and then think about the accompaniments. Apart from the chutneys, honey etc. that we've mentioned before, these also complement cheese:
Storing cheese correctly
But as we said before, if you like it and it gives you pleasure, it's also good for you. The only rule that ought to be followed is that cheese should be taken out of the refrigerator in good time, because the aromas can only develop properly at room temperature. Any uneaten cheese should ideally be wrapped in cling film. This ensures ideal conditions, preventing the cheese from drying out too quickly.
Can cheese expire?
And here's a hint about the expiry date: cheese was discovered over 4,000 years ago in Mesopotamia as a method of preventing milk from going off. It probably lasted no longer than a few days back then. In the age of the refrigerator, not much can happen to cheese except dryness. Hard cheese is especially durable, with no problems. "Some people are horrified by mould", says Rolf Beeler, and he immediately adds reassuringly: "There are 4,000 types of mould. Only three of them are dangerous, and they don't grow at temperatures below 20 degrees C." In other words, if mould appears on cheese in the refrigerator, it's not dangerous: you can simply cut it off.
Cheese: a world waiting to be discovered
To sum up: cheese is a fascinating food, as varied and diverse as the nature it comes from and the people who make it. Since the demise of the Swiss Cheese Union in 1999, which imposed a state-ordained monoculture of Gruyère, Emmentaler and Sbrinz for decades, dozens and hundreds of cheese makers all over the country have been using milk from cows, buffalos, goats and sheep to produce characterful cheeses of all nuances. Switzerland may be a small country, but it offers an amazingly large and varied world of cheeses all on its own. But we are not alone: Italy, Spain and the UK produce high-quality cheeses too. There is a whole world of them waiting to be discovered.
David Schnapp - Das Filet
The gourmets of this world have long appreciated cheese. So the coop@home team have invited one of Switzerland’s best gourmet bloggers to answer some questions on the subject of cheese. David Schnapp, the passionate blogger behind the "DasFilet.ch" blog not only enjoys eating, but is equally passionate about cooking and discovering good food, and understands how to put this into words for you. Whether you want to select the right wine, choose the right combination of bread and side dishes, or find out a bit about the story behind cheese, David Schnapp has the in-depth answers.