I can’t remember an English middle-class dinner party where no one raised the cheese-before-pud or pud before- cheese question. ‘You can’t surely…?’ ‘Oh, but in France…’ go the explanations; ‘…you finish your red with the cheese’. How tedious it gets.
We’ve had guests quite riled at not getting their summer pudding straight after their meat and two veg. But then tradition is a powerful thing in matters of taste; fresh thinking based on actual tastes, messages from the taste buds, is either subversive or such an intellectual challenge it makes you tired to contemplate.
Conclusion: it’s edgy to serve cheese first, square to serve it last. And very edgy, at least among our acquaintance, to suggest that white wine is a safer bet than red. By the cheese stage, the feeling goes, we’re past the white and onto the red, and who’s going to wash up another lot of glasses?
It’s true the convention of the cheeseboard complicates things – like a Chinese banquet where neither red nor white goes with every dish. Why do we do this to cheese anyway? I have nothing against a selection of fresh vegetables, carrots with spinach with beans, and even less against a cornucopia of fruit, but why do cheeses – each in its maker’s eyes a work of art – get shoved together on a plate, creamy with tangy, soft with hard with crunchy and granular? What does reblochon have to do with gouda, or maroilles with roquefort? They don’t even come from the same animals. Would you serve your Nuits-St- Georges with a dash of Barbera and a splash of Frontignan?
Surely better to find a great farmhouse cheddar, melting brie or a drum of stilton and serve it alone in glory with bread, biscuits, celery and a dish of butter. And with it, a wine to illuminate the cheese.
With cheddar, Châteauneuf-du-Pape; with brie, just-ageing white Burgundy or white Graves; with stilton, tawny Port or Maury. With succulent, salty roquefort, a glass of Sauternes. With white goat’s cheese, a Sancerre. Isn’t that a complete course and its complement, wherever it comes in the meal?
But a cheeseboard becomes a portmanteau of different rich, salty, acidic flavours, fierce or bland, and you need a unifying character in the wine; something not too subtle that is fresh and appetising after each mouthful. Tannin is rarely a good idea, acidity always. It can be as snappy as a Sauvignon Blanc, as steely as a Riesling, or wrapped up in honey in a Sauternes or a Tokaji Aszu. Some Sherries go beautifully and Savennières can carry cheese to another level. But don’t take my word for it; tonight’s the night.
Written by Hugh Johnson