THE plate with five different cheeses seems such an elegant thing. But leave it to restaurants and food photographers. At home, there is nothing better than one cheese in perfect condition served with just the right drink.
The cheese course: The late British cheese monger Patrick Rance used to urge his customers to buy "little and often." Better than a messy platter of different cheeses after dinner is one perfect wedge of Roquefort, a half-bottle of Sauternes, fresh fruit and a box of nice chocolates to finish. Voila. Preserved fruit pastes are fashionable but in this the land of fruit and nuts, try serving cheese with whatever's fresh and in season, be this pears, apples or cherries. In the months to come, a young pecorino or new goat's cheese with fresh strawberries would be sublime. To drink, champagne works, or try putting out lots of fresh water, then serving small shots of a frozen eau de vie, perhaps a Poire William.
Port, the classic accompaniment to Stilton, is good, provided that you do not do as the English do and pour it over the cheese.
Meal in itself: The best way to eat cheese is not as a savory dessert but as a main course. There is no more satisfying weekday dinner than toasted sourdough bread, Vella's Dry Jack or Montgomery cheddar and Deborah Madison's spinach and lentil soup. To drink, crack open a bottle of a fruity ale.
For grilled cheese, toast white bread, butter it, add thin slices of "Swiss"-style holey cheeses, Emmental or Gruyere, then quickly press them in a panini machine or under a spatula in a lightly buttered, cast-iron pan. For the Spanish sheep's milk cheeses that are all the rage, try chilled sherry.
What to drink: The bloomy rind cheeses with the edible white satiny coats such as Camembert and Brie are almost always served with wine. But most taste much better with cider. As you progress into the pungent washed rind cheeses, the high smell, but rounded, ultra-rich flavors can either accept cider or rebel. Champagne or floral whites such as Viognier, Gewurztraminer, Riesling or Pinot Gris may serve you better.
Red wines are the hardest to pair with cheeses. Their acidity so often fights the slightly acid nature of most cheese. The best matches are with aged cow's milk cheeses, where the acidity of the drink will complement the salty, nutty flavors. Think Parmesan, cheddar, Gouda and Mimolette.
While reds can be dicey with the semisoft cheeses, such as Teleme, Taleggio and Edam, they are good again with goat cheeses, particularly bright young chevres. Here, the cheese becomes a benign foil.
At the risk of offending the wine and cheese set, there is another option: As a general rule, most cheeses taste good with beer, even better than with wine.
Bread versus crackers: This choice should be dictated by the cheese. Young firm cheeses are fine on either crackers or bread. The runnier the cheese, the more it begs for French bread, whose crust can be manipulated to catch the syrupy paste.
Certain partnerships are classic: goat cheese and walnut bread; Swiss cheese and rye or pumpernickel; French bread and Brie. Aged cheeses don't really need bread. The ability to snatch newly cut slivers of Parmigiano-Reggiano is surely why we have fingers.