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Whether it’s a taste for bleu or Beaufort, Camembert or Stilton, more diners are passing up the usual dessert-cart suspects to savor rich, creamy pleasures from the cheese tray.

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By Marge Perry

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Photography by Phil Mansfield

 

It’s understandable that you power-ate your way through the appetizer—you were famished. Then dinner came, and those first bites were wonderful, but, as you became engrossed in conversation, the food took a back seat.

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Now that your belly is comforted and your whole body (brain included) is warmly relaxed, it’s time to push back in your chair, refill your wine glass, and linger over your remaining nibbles and sips. Rather than diving into a sweet concoction, stay with all those good savory feelings—and make them last longer.

 

The cheese course is the dining equivalent of stopping to smell the roses.

 

In addition to all the culinary benefits, according to Mauro Sessarego, associate professor of hospitality at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, there is a physiological reason to opt for the cheese course. “When you finish with something acidic, it activates your glands—your mouth waters—and you don’t feel as satisfied.” On the other hand, he says, “cheese is a very good way to end a meal because, of course, it is rich and enjoyable—but, also, the creamy richness gives the mouth, body, and mind a sensation of satiety.”

 

Can’t you just feel those waves of contentment wash over you? Apparently, you’re in good company, because at a growing number of Westchester restaurants, cheese seems to be becoming the new dessert. Food & Wine magazine Editor-in-Chief Dana Cowin says, “I can see a future where people will forgo tried-and-true desserts like crème câramel or molten chocolate cakes to try extraordinary artisanal cheeses. Like most desserts, it’s got fat and flavor. But happily, you can have it in small bites and have an adventure every time.” She adds, “What’s next in cheese? Spanish, Australian, and South American imports.”

 

Some restaurateurs credit the cheese tray’s newfound popularity to the Atkins diet, which encouraged its followers to revel in creamy, rich pleasure. Still, though the low-carb diet craze has waned, the cheese course continues to gain momentum. Peter X. Kelly, chef and owner of Xaviar’s, Restaurant X and Bully Boy, and Freelance Café and Wine Bar, reports that his customers are now ordering 60 percent more cheese than they did four years ago. His explanation? “Atkins certainly explains a part of it, but so does access to better quality cheese from around the world.” What the diet craze began, restaurateurs continued.

 

Ordering a cheese course may be a simple matter of asking for the chef’s pre-determined choice, which is a fixed cheese plate—or as complicated as selecting from more than a dozen choices. But when presented with an assortment of unfamiliar cheeses (many with names nearly impossible to pronounce), it’s easy to feel as intimidated as a teetotaler reading an award-winning wine list.

 

There is no “right” or “wrong” way to eat or present a cheese plate, just as there are no hard and fast rules about how to balance the offerings. The style of the restaurant, the chef’s preferences, and the culinary philosophy of the restaurant may all enter into the selection of offerings, just as your personal preferences—be they for pungent, stinky cheese or smooth, triple crème with subtle flavor, and/or everything in between—determine what makes a selection “right” for you.

 

When faced with an entire cheese cart, selection needn’t be an arduous process, a test of your sense of adventure, or a dart game: tell the server what flavors and textures you like.  Are you a fan of nutty, crumbly cheeses? Do you also like over-the-top rich? Do you tend to like big, outrageous flavor, tangy acidic cheese, or maybe more familiar choices, such as cheddar? Are you particularly interested in trying local Hudson Valley cheeses, or are you equally open to cheeses from any region in the world? On a cheese cart with many offerings, you’ll be able to select several cheeses, which allows you to balance a variety of flavors and textures. Depending on the breadth of the offerings, assume you want to split your plate between the known and the new; the hard or aged and the soft; and cheese made from the milk of at least two animals.

 

Which brings us to the question of how many cheeses to order. Sessarego recommends choosing about four. More than that can be overwhelming, he says, and fewer not as fun or satisfying. Then again, it may depend on how much dinner you’ve eaten. Not only are your selections a matter of appetite but, at some point, you may suffer palate fatigue—the point at which your palate is overwhelmed and less able to discern flavors. Not everyone, however, suffers from this loathsome affliction—I personally witnessed my husband tuck into his seven selections at La Panatière with the same gusto with which he’d begun his meal several hours earlier.

 

For most of us, though, a nicely paced meal shared with enjoyable companions becomes all the more pleasurable as we amble our way contentedly, a nibble and a sip at a time, toward the close of the evening.

 

 

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