Perfect Christmas Cheese board
If you are thinking that you might not need cheese with the fully laden table which makes up the Christmas feast, you and I have nothing in common. A Christmas cheese board is always welcome as a palate reviver as a foil to the sweet course. It’s the perfect snacking centrepiece and can be moved onto the coffee table to provide post-charades sustenance, or put to work among the cold turkey and ham. While you might not be able to face another mince pie, a sliver of savoury Cheddar, a morsel of salty blue or a slather of tangy goat’s cheese is always welcome. And drinking without food is such a bad idea isn’t it?
How to make the perfect cheese board
1. Go large
Three or four large hunks of different cheeses make a much more impressive festive spread than dozens of little mean-looking pieces which can overwhelm the palate. It’s practical too – large pieces of cheese store better. One magnificent slab of Stilton is a beautiful thing.
2. Contrasts and variety
One easy rule is to choose something hard, something blue and something soft. You could also choose cheeses made from different milk and go for goat, sheep, and cow’s milk varieties. Where possible, I like to choose local cheeses or at least all from the same country.
3. Keep it simple
Let the pure flavour of the cheese shine, so avoid anything with additions or flavourings. Cheese dotted with dried herbs or flavoured with spice is just too confusing for the taste buds.
4. Temperature and storage
If you have a cool larder, this is the best place to store hard cheeses, wrapped in waxed paper. Not being blessed with one of these here in Dubai, mine will be kept in the fridge, but ditch the cling film as soon as you get the cheese home (or buy from a cheesemonger who knows their wrapping). I follow Patricia Michelson‘s advice on keeping cheese and it really does make it taste better and last longer. Line a Tupperware-style container with a dampened J-cloth and add a couple of sugar cubes to create some humidity. Store blue cheese in a separate box, as it can interfere with the tastes of other cheeses. Always remove cheese from the fridge a good hour before serving so they come up to room temperature.
Like the cheese, don’t overwhelm with highly flavoured crackers. Simple water biscuits or Swedish rye crackers are perfect, or even French-style with some bread. Fresh fruit can be stunning with cheese; a slice of juicy pear with blue is absolutely heavenly. Nuts such as walnuts (as fresh as you can get) and almonds are nice to nibble (unsalted). It’s tempting to have chutney on hand, and cranberry sauce is great with blue cheese and Brie, but leave guests to choose for themselves – never dollop/pour it on the cheese – and avoid if you are drinking something nice as it’ll kill your palate for the wine. Good raw honey is fantastic for drizzling over cheese and don’t forget the best unsalted butter.
By the time you’re at the end of the Christmas feast, reach for something sweet like a classic port or Sauternes. Salt and tannins are not great partners so abandon your glass of Bordeaux when tucking into the Stilton. A refreshing glass of Champagne at the end of the meal is a good alternative and goes well with cheese. More advice on wine and cheese matching here (and see below).
7. Get help
Avoid going out with a strict shopping list and visit a cheese specialist who can give you advice about what’s good now and will go together. I asked several experts, here and in the UK, for their top tips on choosing cheese for Christmas:
Leiths School of Food and Wine
Max Clark, a senior teacher at Leiths and a font of endless cooking knowledge, has put together this cheese board recommendation. Leiths run a range of courses including specialist Christmas cookery and an artisan Christmas cheese-making class (a present for someone for next year?).
A cheese board from the British Isles
This cheese board comprises of soft, hard, creamy, young and mature cheeses; something for everyone, with wonderful accompaniments, such as chutney, compote, wafers and even bruschetta, to form a celebratory array, incomparable to the cheese sputnick, pineapple and grapes of the 70’s.
Cornish Yarg: A semi hard cheese with a creamy centre. Cornish Yarg is wrapped in nettle leaves and is made from cows’ milk; it has a fresh lemony flavour. It is delicious served with pear chutney and English cobnuts.
Ashdown Foresters: Made in Horstead Keynes in Sussex…..home of Winnie the Pooh! A salty, firm cheese; what else to serve with such a cheese but honey! Homemade lemon and honey poppy seed biscuits to accompany.
Caboc: A rich, Scottish cheese, made with pasteurized double cream: perfect for Hogmanay celebrations. Delicious served with warm or cold roast sugar plums and Scottish chilli oatcakes.
Rosary goat cheese: Rind-less, snow-white, creamy and fluffy; the queen of goat cheese. Clean, fresh flavour, lovely with a lightly spiced chutney, such as pineapple, or a crisp biscuit, such as sumac and pomegranate wafers.
Little Black Bomber: A very mature Cheddar from Snowdonia; cheese with attitude. Gorgeous with black fig bruschetta or Morello cherry compote.
Jones the Grocer
If you are in Dubai their cheese room is always a lovely place to visit – and they know about correct storage. Their advice from Filipa Almeida:
“When preparing a cheese board for a festive occasion like Christmas colour and quantity are key factors to have into consideration. Try to offer chunks rather than cubes or slices and to include colourful cheeses like Mimolette or Red Leicester. Depending on the amount of people you’ll be serving, a cheese board should feature one of each type of cheese: goat/sheep, washed rind, soft, semi-hard/hard, blue. Having this in mind, for a Christmas cheese board I would recommend:
Pouligny Saint Pierre (goat): beautiful fresh aged goat’s cheese with a bloomy white rind and shaped as a pyramid, great addition to any cheese board.
Reblochon: washed rind cow’s milk cheese from the Savoie region in France, legally produced with milk from only 3 local breeds of cows. Before serving the cheese board try to gently rub the rind of this cheese with a saline solution to bring to life its orange colour.
Vacherin Mont D’Or: seasonal soft cheese made with raw cow’s milk, available only between October and early March. This beautiful creamy cheese is a winner for any cheeseboard.
Quickes Vintage Cheddar: from one of the most renowned cheddar producers in the UK, and is an uncontested crowd pleaser.
Colston Basset Stilton: king of the blues, Stilton is a must have in any Christmas cheese platter, being considered by many the most iconic Christmas cheese.
If you’re hosting a big party and you want to go the extra mile and prepare an even more luxurious platter than I would definitely recommend you add:
Truffle Brie: The interior of this sensational Brie develops from a chalky state to rich and runny when ripe, it has fine layer of black summer truffles through the centre of the pate, making it a truly decadent and indulgent cheese.
Beaufort: King of the mountain cheeses, Beaufort d’Alpage is an elegant hard cheese with character and class, perfect for any premium Christmas cheese board.
Even though all these cheeses are very good on its own, I would suggest that you serve them with some fresh grapes, fresh figs and some walnuts. If you are a fan of fruit pastes then a damson paste or the typical quince paste would also work very well with this cheese board.
Owen Davies of Cheese Cellar, cheese and gourmet food suppliers in the UK, gives this advice:
“Quality is paramount and far more important than quantity. A traditional cheese board needs to appeal to all tastes so we would suggest serving between three and five cheeses. Generally you would look for a blue, a soft bloomy cheese, a hard Cheddar style, a pungent rind-washed and a goats cheese. This style of board covers the variation in taste, texture and maturation strength. Colour and appearance should be taken into consideration – Cornish Yarg is wrapped in nettles and has a beautiful lacy rind. There are some really special flavoured cheeses that are worth considering, such as Occelli al Barolo, which is enriched with DOCG Barolo wine or Barwheys Smoked – this is from Ayrshire in Scotland. This cheese really packs a punch – the wood chips come from the whisky barrels at Grant’s whisky distillery!”
My cheese board
I’m off to buy my cheese this week. A visit to the Jones the Grocer cheese room is de rigueur as they have the best English cheese selection. I will probably go for Quickes although would love to get my hands on some Montgomery, Keens or Westcombe unpasteurised Cheddar. Lafayette Gourmet is the next stop (see pic of one of their cheese boards below) which is an Aladdin’s cave of continental cheeses (they stock over 100). Last weekend, I picked up a hunk of organic Cropwell Bishop Stilton at Organic foods and Cafe and may go back for more – although Waitrose has large pieces of award-winning Colston Basset Stilton at a very reasonable price (Jones sometimes has their beautiful Shropshire Blue). If I can face battling my way into Carrefour, a Mont D’or will be oozing its way onto my table. Markets and Platters is rumoured to have a good cheese selection and the new Farmer’s Garden in Al Wasl Square stocks some delicious Italian ewe’s milk cheese and some gorgeous rye crackers from Sweden. If off to the Northern Emirates, Finer Things is a good source of French cheese.
If my cheese board has even a passing resemblance to a painting by Carravaggio, I’ll be happy! While I hate slate plates I like them for cheese and have a big one from Crate and Barrel. Natural wood is good too and I’ve bookmarked Stych Farm studios for ordering this summer (planning ahead!). Lime Tree in Dubai sells some attractive wooden ones too. Make sure you have enough knives and cheese cutters – at least one per cheese.
So what’s your favourite cheese on the Christmas table?