Leave it to the French to confuse the issue of dessert. We can’t give them complete credit for coming up with sweet endings to a meal, but they certainly have contributed with everything from mousse and macarons to crème brûlée and profiteroles. Then to throw a plateau de fromage into the mix—isn’t that a contradiction of sorts? True cheese aficionados prefer their cheese course after the main dish and before dessert: sucré must follow salé. And to give credit where credit’s due, the French also came up with the word dessert, from the French desservir, which means to unserve—meaning dessert was set out after the table had been “unserved,” or cleared away. But what’s a diner to choose for a happily ever after ending: sweet, savory, or both?
“Personally, I go with cheese over sweet. Not that I don’t like sweet desserts, because I’ve certainly made and eaten enough of them over my lifetime, but cheese is my personal preference. We offer both options on the tasting menu at Marcel’s, and quite honestly before that, cheese was tough sell. Now almost every table orders both cheese and dessert. Some of that I attribute to the evolution of the American palate. Thirty years ago, you couldn’t find coffee shops serving 50 different bean and roasting options. There were no craft beers or freshly baked breads. Today, thankfully, Americans no longer regard sliced American cheese and a sleeve of saltine crackers as a formidable cheese plate. They are more mindful about what they eat, and that shows through their menu choices.
I think the traditional plateau de fromage can be confusing and intimidating. We offer four choices and your server will explain each selection. But don’t expect cut cheese on a plate with caramelized walnuts. We make it a little more interesting: stuffed with summer truffles, drizzled with walnut honey, or baked around a Granny Smith apple. I don’t think our guests need to pour over 30 different cheeses and spend 15 minutes trying to decide. It’s a nice idea and, again, I personally enjoy that process, but cheese requires an education all of it’s own. Some of our selections are local, but I have to admit, I am a Francophile and love French cheese. It’s kind of like our wine list:
80 percent French, 20 percent American.
The relationship between sweet and savory desserts has, in many ways, come full circle. In as far back as Anglo-Norman times, it was common to incorporate sweet elements into a savory dish: custards, stews, sauces, and tarts made with strawberries and cherries and plums. There was a definite division between the sweet and savory items during the 20th century, and now anything goes. Given cutting-edge equipment, the sky’s the limit. Spoiler alert for the French purist: I like to offer both cheese and dessert on one plate. Sacré bleu! I will macerate apricots or prunes in a sauterne with a little gelatin, for example, make a cheesecake out of a Brillat-Savarin or a Reblochon, and then add the fruit on top. Or I will make a gelée of Bing cherries and add a fromage blanc to it.
Dessert is not an afterthought to a menu. Sure, it’s not about nutrition, but it is a part of our culture. What is more American than apple pie? Or more French than a chocolate soufflé? Or more English than a trifle? Have you ever come across a fine-dining establishment without a pastry chef? Doubtful. Pâtisserie is a fine art, in much the same way as jewelry making or sculpting. Cheese, too, inspires a conversation and tells you a lot about the person who orders it. Dessert is nothing to fret about. It is to be enjoyed.
Savory, sweet, or both.