Why can’t we all just loosen our Ascots a little from time to time?
Yes, these pictures are of me back in the day. My mother was right, I have a lot of real estate on my forehead.
I used to encounter an interesting problem when I was much thinner and could fit into the monkey suit they forced me to wear (I am working very hard on being able to squeeze into it again without injuring myself) in my previous life as a Maitre Fromager (cheese master) at a swanky restaurant. I would put together a plate of several cheeses (anywhere from two to about a dozen or so), and decorate the plate with little accoutrements like almonds, honey, fruit preserves, etc. The customers would usually ask me what order they should eat the cheeses in, and which accompaniment goes with which cheese. I was the expert with the intimidating French title, and they wanted to make sure they were following all the proper “rules” of cheese etiquette. I don’t blame them for this. Nobody likes to make a faux pas, especially at the prices we charged. Like I try to stress at my Cheese 101 classes, let’s not forget where these products come from, and what is the point in eating them anyway.
For me, it’s all about pleasure. Don’t forget that. At the end of t
he day, if you’re paying the price, you get to make your own rules. We professionals can certainly help be your guide but you are the captain of this ship. One of the things that makes modern great chefs great is their willingness and enthusiasm to break some traditional rules and think outside the box. Trust me, they make more disasters than masterpieces by doing this but they are not afraid to fail. They are talented and confident enough to know which experiments work, which ones need some tweaking, and which ones to put in the trash. I have a reputation for being able to pair cheese with some risky and interesting beverages. I learned this by making lots of bad pairings and remembering what worked, what didn’t work, and why.
Back to our little cheese plate dilemma. In the old days, I would explain to the guests that you generally want to taste cheeses from mild to strong for a simple reason. If you start with the strong or very salty cheeses, it will much more difficult for you to taste subtle flavors in the milder cheeses. When I would come back to the tables to check on them I would notice that they took me way to literally. They were eating all of the first cheese, then all of the second, then all of the third, and so on down the line. That’s no fun and never what I intended when I told them which order to taste the cheese in. So, I decided to slightly change my instructions. I started explaining that there is a difference between tasting and eating. I would recommend that they taste the cheeses in the order that I explained, but after they have sampled them all, go back and try them all again. Now that your brain knows basically what they each taste like, the milder ones are much less likely to get overpowered by the stronger ones (with some crazy exceptions that I call “palate-killers). Now, there is much more stuff happening in your mouth and you’re likely to start having new experiences and combinations. Go ahead, dip some of that Basque sheep’s milk into that salty soft cheese from Vermont! Why not? What’s the worst thing that can happen? If you don’t like it, don’t do it again but don’t stop experimenting just because one experiment didn’t quite work out. Same thing with the accompaniments. We can tell you the general rules but please, mix and match, create your own pairings and have a little fun. You don’t have to “get it right” every time, that’s my job and I don’t even knock them all out of the park. I’m just better at explaining that the reason you didn’t like my pairing is because you don’t have a sophisticated enough palate to understand the subtle nuance and brilliance of my seasoned palate and expertise (just kiddin’). Now go out there and be bold and weird!
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