My First Cheese Course

Ladies first! But be careful who you trust.


My wife Val and I had just moved to Switzerland, to the French-speaking canton of Neuchâtel. Switzerland is a beautiful and civilized country, but it was still a shock – new jobs, new language, new customs. Who knew that you had to buy special “weasel insurance” for your car?

After a month of settling into our jobs, we were pleased to see a long weekend coming up. “Let’s go somewhere!” we said to each other. “How about Burgundy?”

Burgundy was only a three-hour drive away, so off we went to visit the fabled vineyards and wineries. And why not try some fine dining while we were at it? After all, we had been subsisting mostly on frozen meals from the local Migros supermarket.

We booked a table at Le Cep, a famous restaurant in Beaune, which boasted a Michelin star. The meal started at 8pm and would go until almost midnight. Course after course of wonderful food arrived. We were stuffed! But then they wheeled out the cheese cart.

This was our first experience with a cheese course and Le Cep’s cart was the biggest we have ever seen, before or since. It looked like an aircraft carrier, topped with dozens of different cheeses. Without labels, of course.

The waiter indicated that we should choose what we would like. We were flummoxed, as our knowledge of cheese was very limited back then. Monterey Jack, Cheddar and Parmesan pretty much covered it.

Luckily for me, the lady chooses first in France. I would let Val sort it out and follow her lead.

Val, always clever, explained that we were new to this game and would the waiter please recommend a nice selection? Which he kindly did, choosing seven different cheeses and making a circle of them around her plate. He told Val that she should start with number one and work her way around to number seven.

I asked for the same selection and soon we were munching happily away. The cheeses were delicious! The first was a mild chevre and the others got progressively fuller-bodied.

Val eats faster than I do and she was the first to taste cheese number seven. She smiled with pleasure and said, “Oh, this is good. Take a big bite!”

I should have known better.

Have you ever eaten Époisses? It’s a cheese from Burgundy and incredibly strong. It’s usually described as “pungent” – now there’s a word! It sears the inside of your mouth so that you can’t taste anything else afterwords.

Yes, cheese number seven was an Époisses. This is definitely not something you take a big bite of.

I love Époisses now but let’s just say it’s an acquired taste. And I had not yet acquired it. So as I took a gigantic bite and started chewing, my eyes began watering and I urgently looked for a way to spit it out.

But here we were in Le Cep, an elegant Michelin-starred restaurant and that’s just not done. So I wiped my eyes and kept chewing while Val covered her mouth and tried not to giggle too loudly.

I survived that episode and we laugh about it today. And I got my revenge when we went to a wine tasting a few weeks later.

But that’s another story.

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