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March 21, 2010

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A tale of two cheese boards

THIS is a food story about two Shanghai wine bars and their cheese boards.

The prime focus of the establishments is unabashedly their wines which are stacked in racks around the walls. Their drink lists offer many pages of red and white wine options, predominantly imported.

The food is overtly a secondary focus, relegated to two or three pages down the back of the wine list in both places.

But it is no-less important as a necessary companion to the wines sold. Both places offer light meals and plates of nibbles from professional and efficient kitchens.

The wine bars °?- Enoteca on Anfu Road and nearby Dr Wine on Fumin Road - are run, if not owned, by Frenchmen.

So by nature and design, in the former French Concession, they are derivations of the friendly, neighborhood Gallic wine shop whose various equivalents in England, Australia and the United States would approximate to the (more robust) local pub.

Central to each establishment is the bar: Enoteca's occupies all of the main entry area and Dr Wine's dominates the ground floor. And it is here for patrons, sitting on a stool beside others, watching the wait staff pour wine and wipe glasses, that a bottle of wine and a plate of cheese is a common order.

The concept of drinking wine and eating cheese, both natural products, goes back to Dionysus, also known as Bacchus, the Greek god of wine, and Homer, the poet, who in "The Odyssey" wrote about the one-eyed giant Cyclops making soft cheese in wicker baskets.

There's a loose theory on wine and cheese pairing that red wine goes with hard cheese and white with soft cheese. But the rules are variable and don't always apply, just as the "red wine with meat" principal is more casually observed and widely adapted for taste and preference.

The cheese boards at Enoteca and Dr Wine - both are presented on boards and with baskets of French breadroll slices - offer a smorgasbord of varieties, an everyman's selection of hard and soft cheeses to suit whatever bottle of wine is ordered from the extensive lists.

The difference between the two selections is not great but Enoteca's at 198 yuan (US$29) is 50 yuan more than Dr Wine's at 148 yuan.

Enoteca recently upgraded its board on the direct advice of master cheese maker Philippe Olivier whose fromagerie in Boulogne is perhaps the most famous in France. Before calling in the expert at the start of the year, its board was much the same price and style as Dr Wine's.

The quantity of cheese offered by each bar is similar but Enoteca's variety is greater: three slices of Emmental (Swiss), two wedges of blue vein (blue), two wedges of soft camembert, two pieces of Gruyere (Comte), two pieces of semi-soft Morbier and three slices of the semi-firm Tomme.

This selection is dressed up with caramelized onion, walnuts, butter and honey. Dr Wine offers five varieties, three in common with Enoteca: seven slices of Emmental, four wedges of camembert, two wedges of blue vein, four slices of a hard vintage and a ramekin of ricotta.

It has more and varied accompaniments, with small ramekins of honey, butter and a mix of olive oil and balsamic, plus lettuce leafs and grapes.

Endless baskets of warm bread are supplied as needed by both bars until the cheese is exhausted.

Both boards are sufficient for two people wanting to graze as they sip through a bottle of red or white wine. Each pays passing respect to a mix of soft and hard cheese varieties.

Dr Wine wins out on quantity but Enoteca is a nose in front on variety and perhaps quality if you like your fromage matured and aged (affinaged) by craftsmen. But to many the craft difference will not be a sticking point.

A plate of cheese and a bottle of wine is a central element to French hospitality and that's the core spirit of these establishments.


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