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The Power Of The Cheese Course

by Jonathon Alsop
September 2001


As anyone who has ever owned a Peugeot or Renault will tell you without too much prompting, the French have their own way of doing things.

You think you smoke a cigarette scissored between your index and middle fingers, but no: you pinch it between your thumb, index, and middle fingers like you're kissing it off.

I thought I knew what a tune-up was till I owned a Renault SportWagon for five years. My whole world-view on auto maintenance was shattered forever.

And if you think -- like I did, till my best friend and I toured the southern Rhone not long ago -- that cheese is something you eat as an appetizer on some bread or with a toothpick in it, then the classic French cheese course of the classic French meal is going to blow your mind.

We were eating in a restaurant called Le Garlaban in the town of Suze-La-Rousse, home of France's University of Wine. After a couple of days of nothing but winetasting and visiting vineyards and wineries, many of the writers on the tour had reached their limits.

Tracey -- who had never really tasted wine with any attention before but had an assignment from one of the biggest women's magazines nonetheless -- said she was going to start crying if she had to look into another 15,000-gallon temperature-controlled stainless steel fermentation tank.

Dinner this night had to be about anything else but wine, so we spoke almost entirely about our lives back home. Everything was going great, and we had just finished a mind-bending meat course of spicy lamb with clove and rosemary and mint over a nest of flash-fried super-thin noodles.

Now came the cheese course, which we had somewhat grown to expect. The owner of the restaurant, who was also serving all 25 seats in the place perfectly, brought a tray of more than a dozen cheeses to the table for each of us to choose from, and presented it to Jay first.

Jay said, "They all look fantastic! I'll have that one!"

"That one is no good," the owner said.

Jay blanched a little and said, "OK, I'll have that one then."

"No, you will not like that one," he said.

At this point, Jay did the smart thing. "All right," he said, "I love cheese, and I put myself totally in your hands. I'll have what you're having."

The owner smiled, and Jay had a new best friend, at least for that night. "And what should we have for wine?" Jay asked, which brought a 1997 St. Joseph to the table, a dense dark Syrah that smelled like bacon cooking.

I believe that meal was the most complete and sublime match of cheese and wine -- maybe even of food and wine -- I've ever had. In the novel "The Debt To Pleasure," author John Lanchester refers to cheese as "the corpse of milk," which explains its complete affinity with wine, the blood of grapes.

IF YOU GO...

Le Garlaban Restaurant, Rue des Remparts, B.P. 31, 26790 Suze-La-Rousse (France), tel: 04 75 04 04 74, fax: 04 75 04 01 06

CHEESE COURSE TIPS

1) Keep it simple.

2) Three or four cheeses are completely adequate for the cheese course.

3) Try to get cheeses that both match and contrast with one another: if you're having a soft creamy fresh-tasting Brie, serve a soft creamy smelly Morbier with it.

4) Blend together one part unsalted butter with one part blue cheese, with your doctor's permission, of course.

5) Get the book "French Cheeses," from DK Publishing. It has useful photos and text for hundreds of cheeses, as well as maps of origins.

QUE SYRAH SIR AH!

1999 J. Vidal-Fleury Crozes-Hermitage (about $16, available almost everywhere) Dark, brooding, rich, smoky and tannic. I smell leaves, twigs, moistness and earth, like the forest floor.

1999 Patrick Le Sec Saint-Joseph "La Sensonne" (about $35 at Brookline Liquor Mart and Marty's in Newton and Allston) Huge and modern, full of tremendous fruit concentration and a big dose of oak. My new favorite wine over $30.


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