By Phoebe Ollerearnshaw
Cheese has been an integral part of the British Christmas menu since the medieval period. Over the centuries, our knowledge and repertoire of cheeses has steadily grown. Today, we adorn our tables with sumptuous selections, drawing inspiration from other cheese-loving nations. But what has sparked the fervent obsession Britons have with this bloomy treat?
Cheese & Christmas tradition
Ceremony of the Christmas Cheeses
In 1692, a local cheesemonger was asked to donate their cheese to old war veterans at the Royal Hospital in Chelsea. The gesture was intended to mark their admiration and sustain the pensioners throughout the Christmas period. For the 300 years that followed, cheese makers continued the tradition of offering their produce to the institution. Now, local cheesemongers from all over the country congregate for this annual age-old ritual, which has been coined the Ceremony of the Christmas Cheeses. Impressive pieces of fromage are ceremoniously cut for the occasion. The Dairy Council has supported the event for 55 years and they intend to pass the torch and promote the event for many Christmases to come.
Calennig refers to the Welsh custom of gift giving on New Year’s Day, which is sometimes accompanied by festivals in larger cities. It is an ancient tradition that once involved children going from door to door reciting good wishes to the neighbouring families. They would receive gifts of food or money for their troubles—the main components of which were cheese and bread. The tradition has trickled down into modern-day life—some families still present their neighbours with local cheeses and bread as a gesture of good will.
For many people, the cheeseboard is a symbol of the Yuletide season. It also acts as a grand finale for the Christmas Day meal. We guide you on how to assemble the ultimate cheeseboard—from classic to contemporary.
A classic cheeseboard will aim to include one cheese from each of the main styles. Mingle a bloomy-rinded cheese—such as a Camembert or Brie—with a hard cheese —like Cheddar—alongside a young goat’s cheese and a punchy blue. For a boldly flavoured addition, include a washed-rind cheese (bear in mind that these are an acquired taste). Such cheeses are bathed in brine to mature their flavour. They can be identified by a sticky orange appearance on their surface that darkens with age. Examples of a washed-rind cheese include Taleggio and Stinking Bishop. Classically, these would be arranged on the cheeseboard clockwise in order of strength. Pair with a tawny port, crisp grapes and onion chutney. Counteract the more sharp-tasting cheeses with quince jelly. Provide crusty French bread and assorted crackers for a truly decadent display.
While the classic cheeseboard formula is tried and tested, adventurous cheese lovers may be inclined to try a more modern ensemble. Think outside the box for an exciting twist on the usual cheeseboard. Why not arrange a cascading tower of cheeses? An alternative approach might involve presenting cheese on a chic slate, a series of tiles or a glass dish. Provide instruments to shave or scoop the cheese depending on its consistency.
Try cheeses from different countries or opt for an animal-led theme (cheeses made from goat’s, cow’s or sheep’s milk). Select products that push the boundaries and offer your guests a wealth of stimulating flavours. We suggest pairing Casa Matias—a soft ewe’s milk cheese with a unique sweetness—with Capra Nouveau, whose spruce band is washed in cider. Add a soft Vacherin or a blue-veined Morbier and finish with a hard variety. It may be a good idea to provide labels and brief descriptions of each cheese and accompany them with fresh figs and interesting relishes. Consider a plum purée, a hazelnut paste or preserved fruits for a final flourish.