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Even with a glass lid covering them, 60 cheeses announce their presence before the rolling cart carrying them turns the corner at Picholine restaurant, in New York. The main course dishes have been removed. A half-full bottle of Bordeaux remains on the table. As fromager Max McCalman opens the lid on the groaning gueridon, the pungent aromas of the diverse offerings from across Europe and North America -- everything from a strapping, stinky French Le Moulis to a delicate Hudson Valley Camembert -- mingle and waft across the table.
The cheese course has arrived. Virtually unheard of 10 years ago, it's now commonplace in serious restaurants across the nation. American diners are embracing this European-style addition with enthusiasm. But unlike Europeans, who tend to focus on their local cheeses, Americans will try anything from anywhere. Restaurants and gourmet retailers across the country stock cheeses from all over Europe, plus new American varieties made by committed artisans from Vermont to California.
Picholine and a handful of other restaurants maintain and age their cheeses themselves -- a far more challenging job than keeping a wine cellar, since cheese is infinitely more temperamental and perishable. In San Francisco, chef Traci des Jardins of Jardinière restaurant maintains a spectacular display of more than 50 cheeses in a glass-walled walk-in cooler, or cave (commonly pronounced "cahv," as in French), visible from the dining room. Under conditions similar to those in a wine cellar, cheese can mature to a state of perfect texture and flavor.
In Napa Valley, Thomas Keller takes a highly original approach at The French Laundry. He recently featured Epoisses, the super-runny, pungent Burgundian cheese, layered in a small dish over date puree and topped with a hazelnut-flour tuile to look like crème brûlée. Keller also makes gnocchi from locally made Ricotta, sauces it with Darjeeling tea essence and freezes Fourme d'Ambert, a French blue cheese, to grate over it.
Cheese now appears on the best tables in the Midwest, too. In the Detroit suburb of Milford, Mich., Five Lakes Grill has been selling a lot more Port since it introduced a cheese course. For many customers, it's the wine of choice for tangy amber Spanish Roncal, powerful Colston-Bassett Stilton and Sankanteaur, a butterscotchy dry-aged Gouda. In Louisville, Ky., executive chef Jim Gerhardt of the Seelbach Hilton sends a cart of just eight cheeses through the opulent, century-old Oak Room. Half of them are local, including Capriole Old Kentucky Tomme, a semihard goat cheese that's reminiscent of Tomme de Savoie, and Kenny's Farmhouse Cheddar, a new raw-milk cheese from a small family farm in nearby Austin, Ky.
New York is the most cheese-crazed city of all. Scores of Manhattan's white-tablecloth restaurants now offer cheese courses -- some 150 of these restaurants are supplied by a tiny shop called Murray's, in Greenwich Village. Picholine, which imports cheeses independently, was the pioneer, but last year chef-owner Terrance Brennan topped himself when he opened a gleaming new bistro devoted to cheese some 30 blocks south. He named it Artisanal and stocked its state-of-the-art cave with more than 200 different cheeses, stored in five separate temperature- and humidity-controlled units.
Early on, through most of the 1980s, emerging artisan cheesemakers from Coach Farm in New York to Ku'oko'a Farm in Hawaii were most successful with goat cheeses. Among the best was Capriole in Indiana, which developed a big following in the top restaurants of Chicago, especially for its dense, creamy, sphere-shaped Wabash Cannonball. Another early success was Sally Jackson's Cheese in a remote northeastern corner of Washington (where she also makes sheep's milk cheeses).
But it's Laura Chenel who gets credit for inaugurating the goat cheese era. She went to France in 1979 to learn how to turn the milk from her own goats into cheese. Alice Waters started serving Chenel's cheese at Chez Panisse, and thus began a trend for garnishing salads, pizzas and just about anything else with dabs of fresh goat cheese. Wolfgang Puck's restaurants still use Chenel's cheese. She makes chèvre and the more complex Taupenière, a bloomy-rind variety that becomes creamy after six to eight weeks of aging.
In the 1990s, Americans finally got the hang of making cheese from sheep's milk, which is responsible for such European classics as Roquefort from France, Pecorino Toscana from Italy and Manchego from Spain. The most prized of American sheep's milk cheeses is Vermont Shepherd, a Pyrenees-style mountain cheese made by Cindy and David Major on their hilly farm in Putney, Vt. The newlywed Majors began milking their sheep for yogurt in 1988 and began winning top prizes for their cheese after a 1991 tour of traditional producers in the Pyrenees. They now make about 20,000 pounds a year, in hefty 5- to 8-pound wheels. Their two new cow's milk cheeses have just hit the market -- Putney Tomme, modeled after Tomme de Savoie, and Timson, a soft washed-rind cheese.
At Tomales Bay Foods in Point Reyes Station, Calif., proprietors Sue Conley and Peggy Smith select and distribute an all-star roster of domestic cheeses, along with a few rare imports. They're fans of the petite bloomy-rind cheeses called Silver Dollars, which are made by Juniper Grove Farm in Oregon, and modeled after Cabecou, a delicate and milky little goat cheese from Midi-Pyrenees. But they reserve their loudest applause for true American originals. "The ones that are outstanding," Conley asserts, "are the ones that are not mimicking famous European cheeses."
Business is so good that Conley and Smith are building a new 1,500-square-foot aging cave. Their current one is bulging with their own handcrafted Cowgirl Creamery cheeses, made from milk purchased from nearby Straus Creamery. Cowgirl's soft-ripened cheeses are the real stars of the line, particularly the washed-rind Red Hawk. "Like most really good original foods, that was a mistake," Conley chuckles. "A batch of Mt. Tam [a luxurious triple cream] got this stray mold on it. It turned the rind red, and I tried to wash it off. We wrote it off as a loss until we tasted it and realized we had something totally different and wonderful." Another aged cheese, Pierce Point, is washed in Quady Essencia, a California late-harvest Orange Muscat.
Despite all this recent experience with cheese, we Americans are still figuring out how to make the cheese course work for us -- in particular how to enjoy it with wine.
Cheese shares a long list of parallels with wine. Like wine, cheese is fermented to create something entirely different and infinitely more complex than the raw material it's made from. Like wine, cheeses age until they reach a point of perfection, then go downhill. Cheeses come in a wide range of styles, each with its own set of characteristics. They taste of terroir. France, Italy, Spain and other countries have appellations of origin for cheese, just as they do for wine. Farmstead cheese -- made from the milk of the cheesemaker's own animals -- is comparable to estate-bottled wine made from the winemaker's own grapes. Artisanal cheesemakers also buy top-quality milk to handcraft their products, just as high-quality négociants use grapes bought from serious growers.
Despite these similarities, and despite the widespread belief that cheese and wine are natural partners, matching them up is not at all simple. The most extraordinary cheeses -- the runniest, stinkiest, most intense in flavor -- can overwhelm the nuances of a fine red wine and even make it unpalatable.
In fact, the wine that works best is usually white, not red, and often sweet, not dry. Those who deal with cheese and wine every day know that the odds are much better with white wines.
And yet the red wine and cheese combination has such a hold on the imagination that it's difficult to dislodge, even in France, where top chefs have been telling people for years that they're best off enjoying cheese with white wine. On a visit to Burgundy a few years ago, I asked everyone I met about their favorite cheese and wine pairings. The first response was always to name a great vintage of red Burgundy and an odorous, sticky cheese like Epoisses. But then most would concede, "If I have a few sips of the white wine left from an earlier course, that's always the best."
Famed Chicago chef Charlie Trotter has a special fondness for cheese, especially blues. "I like them with red wine," he begins, "but the real pungent ones need some kind of sweet wine. Put a few golden raisins on the side, break open a little brioche and it's orgasmic."
Trotter's restaurant does not have a traditional cheese cart, but he keeps a selection of 15 to 20 cheeses available to match with wines from his Wine Spectator Grand Award-winning cellar. Trotter likes it when patrons challenge him. "If they defer to us, we can guide them," he says. "With bigger red wines, we'll always point them toward certain aged cheeses. If they want a cheese with an acidic tang, we'll point them toward a white.
Picholine's McCalman, who has emerged as a leading wine-and-cheese guru, is not surprised that most people find the whole cheese-and-wine thing confusing. "With a plate full of cheese, some will be awful with the wine you're drinking, some will be OK, and one could be the most memorable pairing you ever had. And it's always the unlikeliest one."
Anyone looking for simple guidelines for cheese-and-wine matching is likely to find contradictory advice. Partly, that's because every rule has its exceptions. For example, the closest thing to unanimity among cheese mavens might be the recognition that tart, fresh goat cheeses love fresh, tangy wines such as Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand and Sancerre from the Loire. Occasionally, however, a wine that shouldn't work, such as a rich, dense Côte-Rôtie, will taste just great with a zingy little chèvre. "It's a moving target," sighs McCalman, noting how rapidly the textures and flavors of cheeses can change. "Matching cheese with great wines is always a roll of the dice."
Veteran cheese-and-wine matchers have learned to play the odds. As a rule, Champagne likes soft-ripened cheeses such as Brie and Camembert, Sherry and Madeira go well with cheeses sporting more aggressive flavors, and blue cheese cozies up best to sweet wines. The moldy flavors in blue cheeses make red wine taste metallic and bitter to half the population. The other half loves the combination. If you want to stack the odds in your favor, drink a sweet wine. Sauternes with Roquefort is a classic. So is Port with Stilton.
And that half-full bottle of great Bordeaux still on the table after the main course? Go for a mellow, firm-textured, aged cheese, such as Parmigiano-Reggiano, Comté, a Pyrenees sheep-milk cheese or a California dry Jack.
However you choose to match them up, remember that great cheese will always be a more affordable luxury than great wine. In a restaurant, a plate of some of the world's finest cheeses might set you back $7 to $20, about the same as just a glass of excellent wine. And now, with so many outstanding cheeses available to them, Americans can indulge like never before.