'A meal without cheese is a one-eyed beauty," declared Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, the 18th-century French father of gastronomy.
To which my dear dad, a cheese aficionado, echoed, "Apple pie without the cheese is like a hug without the squeeze." At his insistence, cheese was often served before or with dessert, especially in the fall. It reminded him of the footloose year he traveled through France, before returning home after World War II.
I've inherited his affection for cheese and, in the course of a meal, like it to take center stage, after the main course and instead of a sweet finish. For me, the danger of serving cheese at the start is that I like it so well I too often fill up.
Plus, serving cheese at the end saves me from having to fuss with making a cake or pie. An artfully arranged cheese tray speaks for itself when simply paired with a sweet dessert wine or a good strong port. For those who don't consider cheese to be sufficient dessert, follow the cheese course with a selection of artisan truffles. In putting together the cheese platter, think balance and harmony and don't try to do too much. Each item should be different from the others, and the selection should make sense as a whole.
The classic French cheese course offers a minimum of three cheeses, each crafted from a different type of milk or a different family of cheese, and our region's artisan cheese makers are a terrific source for this. Think about a fresh cheese (chèvre or ricotta) or a mild gooey cheese with a surface mold (Brie or Camembert); a strong, salty cheese such as a Roquefort or blue; and a hard aged cheese like a good Parmesan, Gouda or Cheddar.
In short, choose a contrast of tastes and textures, from mild and tender to creamy and tangy to rock hard and razor sharp. If you happen to come across an absolutely fabulous cheese, something you adore, let it play solo on the plate with plenty of condiments. As you consider the arrangement, start with the mildest cheese and work toward the stronger tastes.
Cheese is best served with ample bread, and a plain baguette is safest. Walnut or raisin breads, crisp whole-wheat crackers and very thin ginger snaps work nicely, too. The French serve a simple salad dressed with olive or walnut oil or fruit (grapes, pears) to cleanse the palate in between. Or simply offer a selection paired with figs, dried apricots, bright local jams and honey, dried fruits and nuts. Try a drizzle of dark chocolate with a few grains of sea salt on top of a light chèvre for a luscious surprise.
Finally, trust your own judgment. Keep it simple, and work with odd numbers (three or five cheeses), matching a sweet condiment to each savory for color and contrast.
Beth Dooley is the author of "Minnesota's Bounty" and "The Northern Heartland Kitchen."