The Cheese Course: why at the end of the meal?
By the time I have finished an appetizer and main course and handed the dessert menu I am usually not in the mood for a cheese flight. Why do restaurants offer this at the end of the meal rather than at the start? I enjoy cheeses but I feel this is a social miscue on the part of restaurants...What do you think, or how do you handle the cheese course?
I don't know why it's done that way, but it's not a social gaffe - I believe that, at least in France, the cheese course is always served at some point after the main course, but before the dessert. When I have a dinner party and want to serve a cheese course, I make sure that the preceding courses are somewhat smaller than the otherwise would be. In restaurants, I often get a cheese course in lieu of dessert.
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I don't this is a social gaffe. From my understanding, cheese is served at the end of a meal to help aid in digestion. I think it's served before the dessert in France, and after the dessert in England. I'm sure it varies. I generally don't eat desserts so I end my meal with the cheese course and port - or some other kind of dessert wine.
I find cheese a fairly rich, heavy course, and I think if I were served cheese before appetizers and main courses, I would not be able to enjoy the lighter courses. So I like that it is offered at the end. I sometimes have to refuse either the cheese or the dessert, but if I really feel like cheese, I try to eat a little less in the preceding courses so i have room to enjoy the cheeses.
I do think there is an inherent issue of portion sizes in North American restaurants. Appetizers have to be big and rich, the mains have to be ginormous, there has to be tonnes of great bread, by the time cheese rolls around, there is no room! Heck, I'm often full after the appetizer. I do enjoy cheese course more when the meal has been more European in portion size.
And of course, if one is really full, one can always avoid eating the rind of the cheese - Which according to Chow tips, we shouldn't be eating anyway - ARGGHH!
I think there is a lot of misinformation going around about portion size and the French. The French enjoy large portions, but not necessarily at every meal. Lunch portions can be quite large and hearty, certainly as large as here in the States. Unless you are talking about very expensive and high end ingredients, most restaurants in France feel that once they have gotten you in the door, they don't worry about skimping on portions.
I am positive the reason the cheese course is after the main meal is because it is inapproriate fill up on cheese before the meal. It would be like snacking just before sitting down to dinner. You're not supposed to eat a lot of it. it is for nibbling and talking with your dinner companions, hence the aide in digestion is sort of 'taking a break' before dessert.
Much to the horror of my mother, who is a Francaphobe, we always eat French-style chez greedygirl - ie after the main course and before dessert. Sometimes when eating out I will have cheese instead of dessert, as I prefer it.
I don't know about the digestive aspects of eating cheese at the end of a meal, but it is definitely a rich (and if the proper cheeses are served, strongly flavored) course, and as such quite inappropriate to serve at the start of the meal. It works best for me at the end either instead of or following a dessert. Many cheeses also go well with traditional after-dinner drinks such as port and brandy.
Also, it may have something to do with the fact that in France, where a cheese course after the main is more common, portions are much more reasonably sized than here, so one still has room to enjoy it. American restaurants are thus caught between needing to serve oversized portions to keep the locals happy, and their desire to offer the Continental touch of cheese at the end.
In a related vein, I am quite bewildered by the common American practice of offering cheese and crackers before dinner - all it does is kill your appetite!
"Many cheeses also go well with traditional after-dinner drinks such as port and brandy." That's why it's the last offering at a traditional English dinner - it goes with port or brandy better than with most dinner wines. Strong and "blue" cheeses, such as Stilton, are awful with most wine, but great with stronger drink. AND walnuts!
My observation in France was that the cheese course is, as mrbozo and cassis suggest, a relaxing pause after the dinner's cleared away, an opportunity to finish off the bread and the dinner wine, and a chance for the kitchen staff (if you're lucky enough to have one) to clear the decks and get the dessert ready. At the place we stayed in Burgundy, the cheese platter didn't change from meal to meal, but was added to as necessary and brought out when requested.