If cheese isn’t available at every left turn, then is it really Christmas at all? Here is how to create the perfect cheese board this season.
Christmastime sees us rubbing our hands together in mischief knowing all too (happily) well that our over-indulgence is part and parcel of the Christmas package.
It’s a tremendous celebration of one’s inner glutton and while our waistlines might not forgive us, society won’t bat an eye. Though gorging on sweet treats throughout the day is all very well, how does it fare to the savoury delight that is the post-dinner cheese board?
Cheese has long been a staple of the quintessential British Christmas feast; as traditional as mulled wine or mince pies left out for Father Christmas. Hero Hirsh, manager of the venerable Paxton & Whitfield, believes that British cheese is a desirable commodity in the current market. With fewer recipe restraints than some cheese made in France, there is a sense of freedom that British cheesemakers have when it comes to their technique—they’re an experimental and passionate bunch able to react to market trends. For example, implementing vegetarian rennet in a popular cheese, where it may not be permissible in a region with recipe obligations, brings evolutionary and inclusive cheeses to the board.
Throwing together months-old cracked cheddar and Emmental that has been sitting in the back of the fridge, however, will simply not suffice. Through word of mouth and expert advice, here are the essentials to creating the perfect British cheese board for Christmas.
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Just the right amount
For a quality cheeseboard, serving any more than three to five different cheeses runs the risk of overwhelming the palate. Hero said that, personally, she ‘likes to keep it fairly simple’ with three to four cheeses. Joseph Yaeger, from London’s La Fromagerie cheese room tends to agree: ‘To some extent it’s a matter of taste. I tend toward more of less,’ he said. ‘But in the [La Fromagerie] cheese room my standard recommendation is five’.
Yet how much cheese is too much? ‘It depends on how much you want left over!’ Hero laughed. She also pointed out that larger chunks of less cheese not only look more impressive, they also have a better shelf-life. It all really depends on how the cheese is to be served; experts generally advise between 100-150 grams for each person.
Cut and packaged as close to the big day as possible, cheese will remain fresher for longer into the festive period. ‘I would say the ideal is to walk into a cheese shop a week before Christmas,’ Hero said.
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The enjoyable task of tasting and selecting the right cheese can mean the difference between a bland, left-in-the-corner display and a thoroughly munched upon, ‘steal for a midnight snack’ triumph.
Variety is king so choose a mixture of soft, hard and blue cheeses for a classic Christmas cheeseboard. Joseph advised that essentials should include ‘a goat’s cheese, a soft/bloomy-rind cheese, a hard cheese, a washed rind cheese and a blue cheese.’ Hero suggested trying a mixture of milks if possible too, including cow’s, ewe’s and goat’s milk. Be creative with colours, textures and maturity for an eye-catching festive centrepiece that has a little something to suit everyone’s taste.
For an extra varied cheese board, consider including cheese from a local cheesemaker. ‘It’s important to support these cheesemakers—say David Jowett at King Stone Dairy, who produces a lovely washed rind called Rollright or Fraser Norton and Rachel Yarrow, who make lovely goat’s cheeses from their own herd—because our business fosters their creativity,’ said Joseph.
A balanced cheese board is key to a satisfied palate, so begin the search with a good soft, melting cheese.
Brie and Camembert are traditionally regarded as French cheeses having originated from their respected regions in France. These are actually generic names referring to particular recipes, however, and some producers make them right here in Britain.
Soft cheese needs time to mature, so buy in advance of the festivities to allow for the best possible taste by Christmas.
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Cheddar is a staple of any cheese board, particularly a British one—and it’s obvious why. Cheddar cheese offers an abundant choice with tastes that vary from the creamy texture associated with young cheddar, to more pungent and complex flavours as the cheese matures.
Hero suggests choosing Barwheys hard cheese made by cheesemaker Trisha Bay, rich with nut and caramel tones. This award-winning Scottish cheddar has a refreshing and ‘pleasant sourness,’ she said.
Possibly the first blue to come to mind when catering for Christmas is Stilton. Famous for its blue veins and potent taste, Stilton is processed by poking needles into the cheese to promote mould growth.
Hero believes that Stilton is unescapable, with her star choice being the Cropwell Bishop Stilton, hand-ladled for a very creamy texture.
Joseph mused, ‘If I’m buying blue cheese, it will always be Colston Bassett Stilton. The French claim the only thing wrong with Colston Bassett Stilton is that it’s not French, which is high praise.’
Storing and handling cheese
Temperature and humidity levels are key in controlling the quality of cheese. Wrap the cheese in wax paper or tin-foil and place in the bottom of the fridge where the temperature is usually a little warmer than elsewhere. ‘I’m always surprised by how differently cheeses taste at room temperature versus our refrigerated cheese room—the flavour compounds really do unlock as the cheese warms,’ Joseph said.
A common misconception is that cheese should be served cold to avoid spoiling; cold cheese actually diminishes the quality of taste. Pull the cheese out of the fridge an hour or so before serving, or for enough time for it to reach room temperature.
The perfect Christmas cheese board doesn’t come without careful research and consideration. Speak with a trusted cheesemonger about which cheeses would be best for this festive season, in order to create the perfect cheese board.
As well as the perfect cheeseboard, read more on The Master Chefs about the other luxury foods you can feast on this festive season.