Cheese Plate / Board - Etiquette?
I'm a newcomer to cheese, but am starting to venture beyond the supermarket offerings and exploring all that cheese offers. I am intrigued by ordering cheese plates or cheese boards in restaurants - and often do so - but I need to be clued in on how one deals with the offerings.
Lots of times the cheeses are accompanied by nuts, honey or a fruit-ish jam, fresh fruit, and bread / crackers / rusks. Does one eat these accompaniments with the cheese (in the same bite) or separately? Does the honey or fruit go on the cheese? On the bread? Is it a "whatever you want'? Is there a proper order to eating the cheeses (soft to hard or vice versa)? Really, any guidance is much appreciated.
Generally you want to eat blues last - often they overwhelm your palate and throw off the flavors of more delicate cheese. Mild to sharp is best provided you've been given a clue as to which is what - which you should have been if you're in a reputable restaurant. Hopefully the cheeses have been plated in a certain order to help you out.
As far as accompaniments go, sometimes specific toppings are placed near the cheese they would best pair with but experimentation is your best way to learn what you like. Honey is fabulous drizzled over a wedge of sharp blue and quince paste is a traditional pairing with Manchego - but tastes great with a variety of similar cheeses. Try the cheese alone before pairing so you can get an idea of how your accompaniment affects the flavor- I don't use bread or crackers when first trying a cheese.
An excellent reply. Although not an expert, I equate cheese tasting to wine tasting...from light to heavy, taste by itself and aerate the palate for a true tasting experience. And, like oenology, the more you read, the more you know. I strongly recommend http://www.amazon.com/The-Cheese-Plat...
Very good answer, especially the point about tasting a cheese by itself before tasting it with something else. In fact, there is nothing at all wrong with foregoing the toppings/accompaniments entirely and eating the cheeses "au naturel."
To the OP: A few fine restaurants have an expert fromager who takes care of the cheeses and presents them. If you're fortunate enough to be dining at one of these establishments, your cheeses will be already arranged in a suggested order of tasting and there will be someone who can answer all of your questions. However, as cheese plates have become more popular and more places have them, you can't necessarily count on the servers being any more knowledgeable than you are. If you're lucky, someone gave them a quick two-minute overview of tonight's cheeses. In case you're left on your own, you'll want to go from mildest to strongest, as Sushiqueen suggests. Blue cheeses are almost always best tasted last, even if there are other strong cheeses on the plate.
Bread and crackers should be neutral in flavor (no onion, etc.). They are useful as a platform for soft cheeses, especially if a cheese is on the runny side, and as a palate cleanser between cheeses.
Honey, quince paste (membrillo), jam, etc. The key is to put a small dab on. Don't slather the cheese, or you'll mask its flavor.
I normally go from mild to sharp/pungent. I have never been shy to ask the waitress/waiter which fruit would go best with which cheese. Honey usually augments the milder cheeses. I have based this surmise solely on the fact that thick yogurt and honey are a match made in heaven and seemingly every restaurant that offers yogurt for dessert also has the honey option.