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Udder Bliss

Cheese Is Finally Getting Respect as the Grand Finale to a Fine Meal

September 03, 2000|JANET BUKOVINSKY TEACHER | Janet Bukovinsky Teacher last wrote for the magazine about her stepson's favorite noodle dish

SOME PEOPLE LIVE FOR ART. OTHERS LIVE FOR their children's well-being, or the vagaries of haute couture, or the ascendancies of the stock exchange. I, on the other hand, have always lived for cheese.

Save for a brief flirtation with macrobiotics, a woefully cheeseless regimen, I have rarely, if ever, passed a day without it. In foreign cities, I head immediately for the latteria, the fromagerie, the queseria--even before I've hit the shoe stores. Early on, I developed a taste for everything from salty Roquefort to that unctuous "port wine" stuff in the glazed brown crock. Now I turn up my nose at ordinary brie in favor of grassy Coulommiers, and my current passion is a sumptuous blue-veined California goat cheese called Humboldt Fog, made by Cypress Grove, with a rind so scary and mottled it quickly separates the dilettantes from the true devotees.

It's probably just coincidence that my closest friend, having sampled several careers, now works as a cheesemonger. On the phone, we talk Montasio (more butterscotchy than Asiago), Le Papillon Roquefort (most fabulous of les bleus), and about the unfortunate tendency of raclette to become suddenly and dramatically smelly.

In my youth, and perhaps yours, there were only those rectangular supermarket specimens in the sunflower-hued wrappings. While James Beard and Julia Child may have been exhorting fledgling gourmands to put out a cheese board after the boeuf bourguignon, it wasn't until the late '70s that Americans began to understand cheese as the Europeans do--not merely as a mantle for baked elbow macaroni or slapped between two slices of toast in a skillet, but as an entire gustatory category unto itself. This new interest coincided with the efforts of cutting-edge retailers such as Manhattan's Dean & DeLuca, which introduced many European food products to American palates. Suddenly, cheese warranted its own department in the grocery store--indeed, entire shops devoted to nothing but. Parmigiano-Reggiano went from being esoterica to an absolute necessity.

My own fervor may be extreme, but I'm hardly alone. The appeal of cheese lies in the fact that it combines familiar dairy texture--give or take differences due to aging and fat content--with a brilliant spectrum of flavor complexities perhaps rivaled only by wine. Still, despite our willingness to snap up everything from Asiago to Zamorano, Americans have been slower to embrace the concept of ordering a cheese course in a restaurant, or of serving it at home before, or in lieu of, dessert. What a pity to have beautiful cheeses only as an hors d' oeuvre. Eaten after the entree, it extends a meal beyond the usual savory denouement, thwarting our desire to abandon the table for the living room. It slows the pace of dinner, making us linger to appreciate its contrasts with toasted almonds or a bit of chutney or a single, perfect piece of fruit. Yes, pears are a lovely accompaniment, but so are the kiwi, mango, melon, peach and papaya.

Inspired by our acceptance of cheese, as well as by the rise of domestic artisan producers, smart restaurants across the country, such as Everest in Chicago and Union Pacific and Picholine in Manhattan, are increasingly offering cheese courses. In Los Angeles, Campanile recently converted its cigar humidor into a room for aging huge wheels of cheese. Patina sends out a splendid cheese cart, accompanied by a knowledgeable fromagier to describe selections as gravely as a sommelier discusses the wine list. Even the worldliest diner is bound to need guidance when confronted with Afuega'L Pitu from Spain, or one of the hot new cheeses from King Island, in Tasmania.

As serious restaurants begin to offer a studied range of cheeses, often as a supplement to a prix fixe or as a separate page in the dessert menu, recalcitrant diners must overcome the perception that cheese is "heavy." It is particularly not so when served in the rather minimalist fashion that fine eateries tend to favor; even five dainty wedges on a big plate, with a slice of nut bread and a curve of dead-ripe honeydew don't fill you up as much as they simply provide a whole new palette of flavors, and a luxurious sense of discovery. Cheese has the stature to stand alone--and when partnered with the last few sips of your wine, it concludes a meal with a finesse no cookie could ever summon.

Recipes adapted from "The Cheese Course," by Janet Fletcher (Chronicle Books, 2000).

Hallie's Walnut Bread with Humboldt Fog

Makes one 8-inch round loaf

1 cup walnuts

1/4 ounce package active dry yeast (2 1/2 teaspoons)

1/3 cup warm water (about 110 degrees)

1 cup milk

1/3 cup unsalted butter

3 1/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour (approx.)

1/2 cup whole-wheat flour

2 1/2 teaspoons salt

1/3 cup minced shallots

2 tablespoons cornmeal

1 pound Humboldt Fog cheese

Alternative cheeses: Fourme d'Ambert or Morbier

*

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Toast walnuts on baking sheet until fragrant and lightly colored, about 15 minutes. Let cool, then chop coarsely.

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