In vino veritas, part X: Cheese tastings

Cheese is often thought of as the lowly second-tier cousin to wine even though the two go hand-in-hand across the globe for fancy soirees. Take a closer look and you’ll see the craft and sophistication behind these semisolid dairy products goes just as deep as their alcoholic pairings.

My appreciation for cheeses was sparked a few summers ago when I sojourned in Cannes, France, with my wife. While shacked up at a bucolic Relais & Chateaux property, Hotel Le Mas Candille, in the town of Mougins, we needed only walk downstairs 20 paces to reach the entrance of a Michelin star-rated restaurant, Le Candille, headed by celebrated chef Serge Gouloumès.

Most notable at first glance was the prix fixe menu at €400 (US$543) per head. Not only are we talking about a truly empyrean bill (taking into account this trip occurred before the recent recession and subsequent European currency reevaluation), but wine pairings were not included and tallied an additional €200 (US$271) per head.

Jaw-droppingly expensive? Yes. A meal I’ll never forget? Also yes. This was not a restaurant but a gastronomic adventure that took four hours from start to finish. No word of a lie, I never thought pigeon could be this tasty (not that I’d had it before!). For dessert, we all enjoyed a marshmallow tasting as a precursor to our edible gold foil-wrapped sugar cane birdcages encasing marzipan canaries.

Aside from the utterly exquisite appetizers, mains and sweets, one striking feature was the cheese tray. Supplementary to the uncorking of our first glass of wine, a knowledgeable server wheeled over a cart adorned with 100 different types of cheese. That’s right — 100 delectable slices of dairy heaven ranging from aged cheddars and blues to obscure varieties of salted brie, all joined by a few select honeys, jams, jellies and home-baked crackers.

Two caveats. First, this was France, home to a centuries-old tradition of proud cheesemaking with each town’s produce as unique as the next. Second, we were at a Michelin-lauded joint, and I doubt the cheese cart would make a similar appearance at the nearest McDonalds.

These two aside, what really struck me was the breadth of knowledge the server effused after a couple generic prompts. In fact, he was no simple waiter, but an in-house “affineur de fromage” — an individual specifically responsible for the maturation and aging of cheeses. Think of him like a sommelier, but for cheese.

Reminiscing on this experience years later, I have now attended several recent wine tastings where each grape varietal was appropriately paired with a different cheese to complement and enhance the flavors of both. It’s definitely a trendy approach to flights, with wine vendors rapidly linking up with cheesemongers (those who sell cheeses) and catchy descriptors like “artisanal,” “boutique,” “craftsman” and “farmstead” creeping into waiters’ cheese lexicons both near and far.

There are two more considerations that apply to the upper end of dairy delights. First, a horizontal cheese tasting is one where you cross-compare cheeses of the same type and region but made from different producers. A vertical cheese tasting is one where you sample the cheese across a spectrum of different ages. You decide whether these tidbits of knowledge have any significance. While at Le Candille, I completed a 12-part vertical brie tasting, each cheese wild with classic creamy flavor and pungent differences in saltiness and sourness. Not only will I never forget this experience (and the hotel which gave it to me!), but it has forever heightened my intrinsic level of cheese appreciation.

Back on topic, knowing premium cheeses are officially a burgeoning commodity, I beg the question: are your hotel guests ready? Would a cheese tasting on the menu actually sell? Or, would specially selected cheeses augment the perceived value of a flight that’s already on the wine list? At the ultra-luxury end of things, would your restaurant benefit from the affineur de fromage treatment alongside your sommelier? Perhaps, just as you offer wine by the glass, you can likewise recommend “cheese by the slice” as an accompaniment.

Just food for thought, or — dare I say — cheese for thought.