Cheese flavor and texture are best at room temperature. Thirty minutes to one hour beforehand set out cheese. Hard cheeses need more time than soft to come to room temperature, and because they have less moisture they should remain wrapped until just before serving so they won't dry out. Other cheeses should be loosely covered so they can breathe; contact with air improves savor and consistency.
To maintain peak quality, avoid exposing cheese to unnecessary temperature changes; set out no more than the amount that will be eaten.
Use more than one knife if serving cheeses with contrasting aromas; residual odor of a spicy blue on a blade can affect the taste of a fresh chèvre (goat cheese). Purists recommend a separate knife for each variety.
At the dining table, the traditional two-tipped, curved cheese knife cuts semi-soft to semi-hard cheeses; its prongs are used to prick and transfer cheese slice to plate.
Certain manufacturers have redesigned the traditional cheese knife to also cut soft cheeses, giving it either holes in its blade or etched sides to prevent sticking when slicing. Otherwise, a very narrow, fine-bladed knife is recommended for cutting soft cheeses at the table. If no specialty knives are on hand, use ordinary knives to slice soft to semi-hard cheeses.
The broad, heart-shaped cheese knife with its pointed blade, can cleave hard or aged cheeses and handles well any crumbly cheese, hard or soft.
Strictly a kitchen utensil for some, the Norwegian cheese plane cuts in one, smooth stroke paper-thin slices of hard cheeses. With hard cheeses, the thinner the slice, the more melt-in-the-mouth flavor. Convenient for preparing snacks and hors d'ouevres, the handled cheese plane has found its way out of the kitchen and onto the buffet table alongside the cream cheese spreader for casual entertaining where guests often help themselves. It can leave, however, a broad indentation in the cheese which makes subsequent slicing less than perfect.
The kitchen tools: Wire cheese slicers, either hand-held or guillotine style, cleanly cut blue and softer cheeses without compacting them as classic knives do. Necessity is the mother of invention and even a tautly held length of dental floss can nicely slice through cheese with a fragile texture.
Wide, bell-shaped knives cut blocks and cubes; double-handled knives multiply cutting force for bricks, blocks and wheels; and cheese cleavers break up hard, aged cheeses into edible pieces.
Sharing drawer space with conventional graters and shredders is the girolle, a hand-cranked circular cheese parer, the funnest gadget since the mechanical apple peeler. A 1982 Swiss invention, it shaves thin, curly ruffles, called cheese rosettes, off the tops of small hard, round cheeses, in particular the mini-sized cylinder of tête-de-moine.
Share the rind. Cheese should be cut so that each portion has some rind so that the last slice isn't mostly rind. It's impolite to take only from the center, and besides, cheese is more savory near the rind. To achieve a fair and polite distribution, cut round or square, flat cheese in triangles starting from the center going out to the rind.
Cheeses fabricated in large wheels, such as gruyère that are served in wedges or oblong slabs laying flat, should be cut from side to side.
some cheeses are too runny to cut when ripe like mont d'or, as it's known in France or vacherin in Switzerland, or like an advanced époisses. After the upper rind has been pricked and peeled back with a sharp knife, the liquidy cheese is scooped out with a spoon and eaten "à la bonne franquette," simply and without fuss, on pieces of crusty baguette or fresh, country-style bread. These cheeses are left in their original pine boxes to maintain their form. (The mont d'or pictured here is still fresh, and not yet in a more affiné and runny stage that would come with the passage of a couple of days and warmer ambient temperature.)
The order: keep cheeses well separated on a flat and sturdy platter or board to keep aromas from mingling and to make cutting easier. Arrange them by category and strength. A selection of three or four cheeses makes a respectable platter. Firmer cheeses, more difficult to slice, should be placed toward the outside rim. Crumbly cheeses should be toward the center.
At a dinner, the cheese platter is left in the kitchen until served. If a whole cheese is in the selection, it should be "opened," that is to say presented with a first slice already made, to show ripeness and to relieve guests of the responsibility of being the first to slice it. For example, a small round served in its entirety would have its first slice cut with its point slighty detached from the cheese center. Other than that, cheese should never be pre-sliced in individual portions when it's to be served after the meal's main course.
Flavor is optimal just after cutting so each guest slices his own, taking small portions of two or three cheese presented in the selection, being careful not to disarrange the platter by inattentive cutting. Cheese is eaten with a fork and knife, and although a bite-sized part may be placed on a small piece of bread, it should never be spread.
When serving cheese as hors d'oeuvres, entrées or accompaniments on brunch platters when cheese is to be sliced beforehand, manage timing so that cheese is not cut or cubed too far in advance, and be sure it's kept well-covered until serving. The smaller the piece of cheese, the faster it dries out.
For a quick and easy guide to how to slice different cheese forms, see a preceding blog post, The Right Slice: Cheese Cutting Tips.
Text & photos ©2009 P.B. Lecron with the exception of photo of girolle posted with the permission of Interprofession Tête de Moine, www.tetedemoine.ch