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Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Cheese boards

Cheese again – this time my hobbyhorse is galloping across the vast open expanse of the restaurant cheeseboard. Although the standard practice now is to offer a plate of cheeses in place of a dessert, with no choice allowed to the customer, there are still a number of restaurants that are prepared to maintain and serve a full cheese board.
This is probably trickier than it seems, not to mention costly, because not only does it entail making sure that you have delectable-looking pieces of a wide range of cheeses (wouldn’t you be put off by squodged scraps of cheese as always left over at the end of a family meal?), but to get full value from it, whoever serves the cheese must know what it is. Ideally they would know more than the mere name, but recent experiences leave me feeling that we must aim for the attainable.
At the Don, an established City restaurant, the cheese was kept on a respectable trolley with a marble top and in excellent condition, but the range was peculiar and the waiter who served it seemed to know rather less than nothing about it.
The cheeses I chose were Roquefort, Flower-Marie, Livarot and a ‘cloche’ that turned out to be goat’s cheese. Also on the board were a Coeur de Neufchatel, another strong French washed-rind cheese which neither I nor the waiter could identify, a small Stinking Bishop (or so it was alleged, although I have never otherwise come across a miniature version) and a hard English cheese that none of the staff could hazard a guess at. It might have been a very young Lincolnshire Poacher.
The waiter, who may have been on his first day on the job, first of all just wanted me to point at random; when I demanded more information, he sighed heavily and pulled out a piece of paper with most of the names scribbled on it. These he scattered at random and under his breath over the board and when asked to repeat them, he reordered the names in the hopes that somehow this would improve matters. While sympathising deeply with his predicament, I was disappointed to realise how little he was interested in the food he was serving.
Quite otherwise was a delightful experience at Giardinetto, a nouvelle Italian (what a bastard term, but I can’t think of a better) on Mayfair’s Albemarle St. It was an expense account dinner in an obviously expense account restaurant, but my heart had already been won by the sommelier who explained his practice of warming each glass with a drop of wine as part practical flavour enhancement, part ‘theatre of wine’.
Come dessert time, my companion said firmly that I would have the cheese instead (do you think I have acquired some kind of a reputation?).
The hitherto silent waiter brought an entirely Italian cheeseboard around. I confessed to knowing nothing about Italian cheese and threw myself on his mercy. Luckily it turns out that Italian cheese is close enough to other kinds of cheese that I was able to ask intelligent questions (what is that washed with?; isn’t that a sheep’s cheese?; that kind of thing) and while my companion chatted up the sommelier, myself and the cheese-maestro got down to it with the Talegino, the Parmegiano, the two varieties of Ubriaco and so forth.
He explained to me how he looked after the cheeses, how they were aging, where they were from and in some cases who had made them. The decision over what to keep on the board was obviously as agonising to him as that of which to try on my plate was to me. To my shame, I neither asked him to repeat the names of the cheeses so that I could be sure I had understood him or wrote immediate notes on them. All I have are the happy memories and a determination to return to try again.