The other week we asked our readers to pose any and all questions on cheese to our cheesemonger. (Lines are still open if you have a query of your own.) Herein lies the answer to reader jeffzelli's question:
"It's a bit embarrassing, but I have to ask: what is the etiquette for eating a cheese flight? My friend and I had a cheese and wine flight at Bin 36 in Chicago a couple of weeks ago. We had side plates and a normal tableware setting, but no toothpicks or special utensils for the small chunks of cheese on the serving board. I decided to use fingers for the harder cheeses and a knife for gooey ones. Is that okay? And is it okay to put the harder pieces of cheese on a small piece of toast on the second taste?
We've discussed how to taste cheese, but how does one eat it? Especially in a formal setting?
In terms of utensils, forks and knives are the obvious-- and sometimes only available-- choice. They're perfectly reasonable vehicles with which to transport your cheese, regardless of cheese style.
What you may not know, however, and what our reader intuited, is that using your fingers to eat individual pieces of cheese on a formal cheese plate is perfectly reasonable. It's more neat to use your fingers for harder cheeses that aren't as messy, of course. Touching your cheese informs your palate as to the cheese style, texture, age, and fat content and can ultimately enhance your experience of knowing what's on your plate.
Don't underestimate the service a knife provides. Dinner knives are perfect for delving into the creamiest of cheeses, and since they aren't sharp, eat the cheese directly off of the knife itself. It's one of the best ways to eat cheese like a pro. It also eases the voyage from plate to nose to mouth. Always smell your cheese before eating: you taste more with your nose than with your taste buds, actually.
As far as bread is concerned, it's there for a reason. To fully appreciate your cheese selection, eat your cheese on its own and use bread or crackers as a palate cleanser rather than a canvas. When you spread cheese on bread, it actually breaks down (or, more appropriately, smooshes) the natural structure and integrity of the cheese. That's why you'll often see harder cheeses like Parmigiano Reggiano in broken, irregular pieces rather than neat slices; it's best when cut with a sharp pointed knife that allows for the cheese to break into chunks on its own along the natural breaking points. The same is true for soft cheeses, which prefer to maintain their natural shape when being eaten.
If you don't enjoy eating your cheese plain, try incorporating accompaniments that may arrive with it. Pay attention to the order in which the cheese was plated. Cheeses should be consumed from mildest to strongest, since you may miss the nuance of a mild cheese after eating a stinging, astringent blue. Ask your server if it's unclear.
It probably goes without saying, but take into consideration your setting. A dip of the finger into an oozing triple creme may be better suited for a gastropub than a four star, once in a lifetime dining experience. But in either situation, do what makes you feel comfortable-- the most important rules in the world of cheese are in regards to enjoyment rather than etiquette!