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The Cheese Course: why at the end of the meal?

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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?

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  1. 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.

    Edit:

    More here - http://www.chowhound.com/topics/499015

    1. 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.

      1. 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!

        http://www.chowhound.com/topics/540578

        1 Reply
        1. re: moh

          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.

        2. 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.

          1. 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!

            4 Replies
            1. re: BobB

              I definitely agree about not serving cheese before a meal - or at least not putting out slabs of cheese and bread etc.

              1. re: BobB

                "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.

                1. re: Will Owen

                  Actually, blue cheese and Sauternes is a match made in heaven, Will.

                  1. re: invinotheresverde

                    oooh, yesh.

              2. Cheese is something to nibble while sipping paired wines or ports and discussing the meal itself, the weather, politics, religion and/or sex. One does not worry about the course going cold, in fact conversation improves its flavour.

                1. The cheese course is just a way to finish that last morsel of bread and sip of wine.

                  2 Replies
                  1. re: cassis

                    If you're in a hurry it certainly is an opportunity to gulp gobble and run. Otherwise it provides a civilized slow paced end to the meal.

                    1. re: cassis

                      cheese deadens the palate and takes a long time to digest, which is why it's at the end, not the start, of a meal.

                    2. Traditionally, it's at the end of the meal for some cultures e.g. French, but for others, it's at the beginning e.g. Portuguese.

                      1. Because "Käse schliesst den Magen", or 'cheese closes up the stomach' -- a German saying whose actual scientific proof, alas, I do not have.

                        5 Replies
                        1. re: linguafood

                          Love those German foodisms! My favorite is, "Wein auf bier, das trinken wir; bier auf wein, soll nicht sein."

                          Roughly translates as, "Wine on top of beer, that we drink; beer on top of wine and you're worshiping the porcelain god." ;-)

                          1. re: BobB

                            Well, for those *professional* drunks among us, the saying has been changed to "bier auf wein, das ist fein". no translation needed here, me thinks :-D

                            Besides -- the porcelain god generally isn't picky about which beverage you had first.

                            1. re: BobB

                              The one that we use is
                              "Wein auf bier, das Rat ich dir,
                              Bier auf wein, das muss sein"

                              Wine on beer, i suggest that
                              Beer on wine, you need to do that.

                              i.e. as long as you get the alcohol in you, its all good.

                            2. re: linguafood

                              The actual saying - attributed by some to Goethe - goes:
                              Bier nach Wein - trinkt ein Schwein
                              Wein nach Bier - das gib mir.
                              (Beer after wine - drinks a pig
                              wine after beer - that serve to me)

                              1. re: Joehadddd

                                nah it's my friend Jeff:
                                "liquor before beer, never fear,
                                beer before liquor, never fear"

                            3. I'm always confused about how to order when the cheese cart comes around.

                              there are some cheeses I do and don't like and can pair those up ok with my wine or port, but it's when the waiter pauses to see if the imminent slice(s) might be appropriate.

                              Esp. if I'm on someone else's tab.

                              11 Replies
                              1. re: hill food

                                I guess that can be tricky. I like being able to choose but sometimes you never know what you're going to get...depending on the restaurant and esp if no description is offered. I like a selection of 6-8 cheeses and if the House is choosing, I'll get ticked if I any of the selections include rondele or brie, but maybe that's just me. Regardless of whose tab it is, I put aside $20-$40 in my mind for the cheese course, since for me, it takes the place of dessert.

                                1. re: SoulFoodie

                                  Wow! That's a whole lot of cheese!

                                  I agree with you about the brie, btw. The best cheeseboard I ever saw was at Le Gavroche in London - just to die for. Actually I found it hard to get decent cheese in restaurants in America. I went to Susan Spicer's place in New Orleans and was very excited that they had Epoisses - until I ordered it and it was straight out of the fridge. :-( I asked them why and they said "Because it gets really stinky and runny". Er, that's the whole point! Smells like a dead rat - tastes divine!

                                  1. re: greedygirl

                                    If you come to States again - do inquire - there are lots of wonderful US cheeses as well - there's a market in Manhattan that sells only US cheese. Also, a number of restaurants in Manhattan have terrific cheese courses.

                                    1. re: MMRuth

                                      We did go to a famous deli in the California wine region - I forget the name (Yountville, maybe) where we were offered Neal's Yard Dairy Cheese - "all the way from London". We did smile a bit at this!

                                      I was not long out of college and poor last time I was in Manhattan (mid nineties). It will be different next time, believe me!

                                      1. re: MMRuth

                                        This may lead to another thread, but even including Picholine, have not had a drop dead cheese course in NY. In LA recently at Providence, had the most varied and perfect condition cheese course ever in this country. Where MMRuth do you feel in NY is a terrific cheese course ? l have had a lot but none rang my bell.

                                      2. re: greedygirl

                                        LOL..yes, it's a whole lot of cheese. Maybe "I" should be called greedygirl :-) But no, most menus I've seen come with a selection of 3-5 and that's fine. But there are some places that have a minimum selection of 3. I think for me it depends on what the cheese is being served with and I'm always hopeful that the crackers, dates, grapes, etc are also made available and are good themselves. Sometimes it's just one cheese and a contrast, and that can be great as well.

                                        1. re: greedygirl

                                          Oh dear. what a sad thing to do to Epoisses :(

                                          Epoisses is so wonderful when stinky and runny. It may be one of my favorite cheeses ever. But I do understand, it can get awfully stinky, and I imagine it could turn some people off their meal. You need to have enough space to store it somewhere away from the customers.

                                          But I've seen people looking pretty disgusted when the cheese tray passes by, even when there has been no Epoisses. Cheese can get pretty stinky! But that just makes me love it more.

                                          1. re: moh

                                            We went from LA up to Cambria for my 70th, and some old friends from Palo Alto joined us. Along with some swell olive oil, they gave me some great crackers and some "stinky cheese" - Red Hawk from Cowgirl Creamery. It was tucked away in a heavy Ziploc bag, but after a day and night in the minibar fridge we opened the door and were almost knocked out! To carry it home we bought a box of Ziplocs and put the cheese inside three of them, which worked okay. I must say, though, that was some of the best cheese we can remember ever eating.

                                            1. re: Will Owen

                                              yeah what smells bad can taste great

                                              1. re: Will Owen

                                                I remember buying a Calvados-washed camembert in Paris, leaving it in my hotel room, opening the door at the end of the day and thinking "my laundry is getting really ripe" -- oh wait, it was the cheese, wrapped and stored in a foil-lined compartment in my carryon.

                                                1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                                  Traveling with *some cheeses* is akin to bringing a durian fruit on board and eating it in flight. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Durian

                                                  Hunt

                                      3. I don't know if this is the rationale, but according to my Harold McGee book (The Science of Food or On Food and Cooking or somesuch thing like that-- it's the big red book), eating cheese after a meal, for whatever reason, makes one less prone to getting cavities.

                                        Ever since I've read that, I've been trying to eat a postprandial piece of cheese whenever I can. :)

                                        2 Replies
                                        1. re: anzu

                                          Interesting theories in this thread. Call me a philistine but I don't care much when the cheeses arrive as long as they do :-).

                                          And as a former cheese shop employee (cue Monty Python sketch) the preferred descriptors are "assertive" or in extreme cases "pungent" -- smelly and stinky are verboten!

                                          1. re: anzu

                                            I also have no scientific basis, but I think with the cheeses that are raw it is easier on your stomach if you have it after the meal. I'm pretty sure my French in-law mentioned that you want a full stomach before you put cheese in it. After eating some of those cheeses in Paris on an empty stomach and getting a horrible stomach ache I tend to believe it!

                                          2. i actually don't digest dessert well after a meal and so am pleased when they have a cheese plate. i can have this if everyone is having dessert and not feel left out. i also sometimes order this as an appetizer as well. if they have it on the dessert menu - they will aslo serve as a first.

                                            1. I know this isn't the historic reason, but evidently it is very good for the teeth.

                                              3 Replies
                                              1. re: lagatta

                                                hey calcium, no refined sugar... should come with a sticker "kind to teeth"

                                                dtud: I understand, I feel like a sot if I'm knocking back apres-tifs or rushing the others if I slip out for a smoke (or worse, perceived as skipping my share of the tab).

                                                1. re: hill food

                                                  'apres-tifs'-- very cute.

                                                  It is perfectly acceptable to refer to the post-dinner drink as a 'digestif''.

                                                  1. re: Lizard

                                                    lizard, I'm not a sweets/dessert person. so yeah in my head it it tifs. of course though I suppose if one is truly apres it would only be custard anyway.

                                              2. no basis in history o science, but jfood thinks that cheese courses at the end soothe the tongue. he knows when he mistakenly eats something too spicy, milk or cheese is a quick fix, so why not a whole course? Likewise the cheese course is always so pleasant, moves the discussion from politics or something back to the food at the end of the meal.

                                                1. Italian restaurants often offer their mozzarella or burrata course at the front of the meal as an appetizer...how come?

                                                  4 Replies
                                                  1. re: gutreactions

                                                    I guess I think of that as an antipasto rather than a cheese course.

                                                    1. re: gutreactions

                                                      these are soft, mild cheeses whereas in my experience, the cheese course is strong and/or aged cheese. one is intended to stimulate appetite, the other is intended to be the last thing eaten.

                                                      1. re: fara

                                                        In my experiences, the "cheese course" can vary completely across the board. It just depends.

                                                        In many of my catered events, we choose cheeses that will go with the red wines, that were served with the mains, but in many, will serve totally different wines, to pair with a broader range of cheeses. It depends on how one wishes to handle things.

                                                        Enjoy,

                                                        Hunt

                                                      2. re: gutreactions

                                                        I agree with MMRuth. We just did two starred restaurants in Rome, and each offered a full "cheese course," prior to dessert. Mozzarella was not on either, as it WAS on the antipasto course.

                                                        Hunt

                                                      3. BobB is right for the richness at the end; Cassis is right as originally a way to finish the red wine left on the table. If eat before meal, get stuffed early unless you are Uhockey, who can eat like a flock of seagulls.

                                                        1. there's also a school of thought that cheese, with its rich populations of flora and fauna, is an aide to digestion.

                                                          This probably only applies to raw-milk cheeses.

                                                          (and you guys knocking Brie up there? Come share a *real* raw-milk Brie de Meaux or Brie de Melun with me. You won't feel slighted that it's "only" Brie)

                                                          1. Ok came across this and just thought i would explain. In th UK this obviously goes for US going by some of the posts the cheese course is served post meal datng back to naval traditions of the 18th century where cheese was consumed with port for the officers. This has trickled down through society at is the standard adopted way we enjoy a cheese course. I feel it is also morrod in the enitre approach towards meals where the cheese course is the main point of social interactions due to the shorter nature in the number of courses we eat. In france at the same point when courses were originally adopted from russian culture the cheese course was placed before the pudding so none of the flavours wouldf be lost by a presweet course. Traditionally cheese was not served with bread but was to be enjoyed in its own merit On a side note there is also a correct way to eat a cheese course you start with the least salty such as brie and camembert and work round to the most salty such as stilton this is agaion so none of the subtle flavour are lost.

                                                            3 Replies
                                                            1. re: AAchef

                                                              italians will frequently finish a meal with a platter of cheese and a plate of fruit, for the table, no pastry, cookis or cake.

                                                              it allows time to linger and finish the wine or have a digestif.

                                                              1. re: AAchef

                                                                Thanks for interesting facts on cheese course origins, really not much info out there.

                                                                1. re: AAchef

                                                                  There is also the "digestive qualities" of many cheeses.

                                                                  Hunt

                                                                  PS - many, especially some of the Bleu Cheeses, go well with Tawny Port, or any leftover Sauternes.

                                                                2. If you know the restaurant you are dining at has a cheese course and you want it but not at the end of a meal, why not just ask for it to be served earlier? I'm sure most restaurants would accommodate this request.

                                                                  1. This is a holdover from European dining, where the cheese course is served after the mains, but before the dessert course.

                                                                    For me, this is the perfect placement for the cheese course, but you are free to order it elsewhere.

                                                                    I find that the biggest obstacle is with the wine pairings, as more whites go with cheeses, in general, than do reds, and one might well have moved onto reds, with the mains.

                                                                    To counter that, I either urge my guests to save some of their Montrachet for the cheese course, order the caterer to serve cheeses, that do pair well with the reds, or just add in wines, for the cheese course.

                                                                    At a restaurant, I want MY cheese course to come after the mains, and before the dessert course.

                                                                    The choice is yours. There is no "right," or "wrong," if you are either the patron, or the host/hostess.

                                                                    Enjoy,

                                                                    Hunt