Say Fromage!
The vast variety of French cheese may have vexed the nationalistic Gen. de Gaulle ("No one can simply bring together a country that has over 265 kinds of cheese"), but at the Ritz-Carlton's Dining Room, yesterday's political problem becomes today's sumptuous cheese cart. Maitre d' Nick Peyton keeps about 30 cheeses on hand in the kitchen and each day sets 16 of them on the cart, from which diners choose those they want, along with green grapes and a glass of port.

"The cheese course is the most relaxed course of the meal," Peyton says. "There's no rush, conversation is flowing freely, and the cheeses offer strong, wonderful, rich flavors."

Besides French cheeses, there are offerings from the United States, Spain, and Italy. But France has "a great and long tradition of artisan farmhouse cheese-making," Peyton says. "In America we're having a revival, but we don't have the tradition."

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The daily arrangement on the cart isn't willy-nilly. Peyton likes to set out a blue cheese or two (such as Roquefort), and examples of goat's-milk cheese, sheep's-milk cheese, and hard cheese. There are also three or four "soft ripeners," such as brie -- cheeses high in butterfat (from 40 percent to -- dieter's alert -- 75 percent) that are sprayed with mold to form a white crust.

"Washed rind" cheeses, by contrast, are "more pungent, full-bodied, and stronger," in Peyton's words. Every day for several weeks these cheeses are washed with brine or a local liquor (such as Calvados, the apple brandy of Normandy), which forms an orange rind around the cheese. Because these cheeses are aged longer than soft ripeners, "they tend to be firmer," Peyton says, and are sometimes called "semisoft."

Peyton buys cheese every week in "a constant exploration" for new and remarkable things to offer his discerning clientele. (Coming in a few weeks: Vacherin Mont d'Or, a raw cow's-milk cheese washed with brine and sealed in a resinous birch rind.)

"I want to offer people cheeses they won't find in the deli case at Safeway," he says. "Most commercial sellers are interested in cheeses that have long shelf life. I'm interested in cheeses that don't."

Cheese is something of a family affair for Peyton. His father was English and an aficionado of Stiltons and Cheddars -- "wonderful-tasting cheeses," he says. But Peyton pere could not abide the fragrant cheeses of his German wife.

"He would tell her, 'That cheese is much too stinky,' and make her hang it in a basket on the clothesline," he says with a laugh. So don't look for Limburger anytime soon on Peyton's cart.

By Paul Reidinger

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