Why you need a festive cheese board and how to make one
Maybe it’s complete madness to think about adding more food to the Christmas table but a festive cheese board is absolutely non-negotiable in my book. If the festive spread brings people together around the table, the cheese board keeps them there. Starters, turkey roast with all the trimmings, Christmas pudding, chocolate Yule log et al have all started to fade from the digestive memory but having little nuggets of savoury, saltiness to nibble on with the port or Sauternes is fuel to the communal conversation. It keeps people sustained through charade playing and can be supplemented by bread, ham and pickles later on instead of supper. It’s another celebratory item on the table for vegetarians, and keeps Christmas pudding haters happy – yes there are these strange people round my table and even members of my own family.
Throughout the festive season it’s a simple but stunning thing to take along if you are contributing to another feast, makes a splendid centrepiece on a buffet and can easily do as supper if you just can’t face cooking again. Having an array of cheese on hand makes great emergency rations if you need to soak up the excess imbibing from a party at midnight. If you suddenly crave simple fare a grilled cheese and tomato sandwich does the job as well as being a great ‘morning after the night before’ foil.
I’ve written about putting together the perfect cheese board for the festive season before and recommended specialist cheesemongers for choice, provenance and well-stored fromage. Last week I was asked to speak at a gathering organised by Good Magazine and Marks and Spencer so made my selection from their counters and found some absolute treasures. M&S has an excellent reputation for working closely with their suppliers and while dairies need to be a certain size to supply such a large chain, there was a lot to like about the provenance and authenticity of the cheeses. An advantage of such buying power also has an effect on price and I was impressed at how reasonable these very good quality cheeses are (the 300g wedge of Blacksticks Blue was 35 aed). Here are some of my tips from the demo:
How to put together the perfect cheese board
- Start with a theme. This could be a region, a country or something more esoteric but it helps to give a cohesion to the whole board (as well as narrowing down your choices for easier shopping). I went for English cheeses this time although included a Brie from just over the channel for balance.
- Choose your base. I favour a wooden board or tray but use something from in my kitchen i.e. a chopping board or bread board. Slate looks good too. Choose a size that’s in proportion to what you are putting on it. A generous look is what we’re going for, so don’t use a huge board that dwarf a few small cheeses if this is what you’ve got.
- A generous look. Using a few large blocks of cheese looks better than lots of little ones dotted about. In fact I’d rather have one really splendid piece than lots of mean looking sticks. Odd numbers work better too.
- Contrast in taste and texture. I usually work up in strength starting with a creamy goats milk cheese, a soft cheese, something hard, something crumbly and tangy and a blue.
- Accompaniments for cheese. A very plain cracker is essential plus you can add a fancier one – but don’t choose a flavour that will fight with the cheese e.g. a cheesy biscuit. Breadsticks add contrast in size and rustic rye bread slices are a good match. Chutneys, fruit pastes and preserves in little bowls add colour and shine. I love a dish of honey comb in the centre – it catches the light and is amazing drizzled over goats cheese, Cheddar and blue cheese in particular. Nuts and fresh fruit are the final elements and make everything look really festive. Blue cheese with pear is a match made in heaven. Figs, redcurrants and pomegranates add a jewel like touch, but even dried fruit such as apricots add a feeling of abundance.
- Assemble your board. Arrange the cheeses at different angles around the board with spaces between them. I like cheeses uncut but you can start to slice them so that guests don’t feel intimidated by a large block of pristine cheese, especially if on a buffet. Make the pieces large enough for a mouthful but not unmanageable. Herringbone cutting is nicer that sliced as though making sandwiches. For soft oozy cheese remove a sliver so that it starts to flow invitingly.
- A festive look. Place little bowls of honey or chutney between them. Start at the outside of the board and drape bunches of grapes over the edges and then fill in the gaps working inward. You can stack crackers in rows or place them in a separate basket. Group similar items together rather than dotting things around. Layer up with breadsticks or put them in a tall container for added height. If your cheese board is very large do this in situ as carrying it to the table could be precarious.
- The tools of the trade. Place a variety of cheese and butter knives at hand or even on the board so people feel they can dig right in.
A mainly English cheeseboard from M & S
This is what I chose and have since been back to buy more of the blue and the delicious, creamy goats cheese.
Cornish Cove Mature
Made from the milk of cows reared in Cornish pastures this full, rich and creamy cheese is described as ‘rugged like the Cornish Cliffs’ and has been made exclusively by Cornwall-based Dairy Crest for M&S since 2010. The cheese received the royal seal of approval when it was selected to be included in the Marks & Spencer Patron’s Lunch Hamper.
This unique soft blue cheese is handmade at Butlers at Inglewhite Diary in rural Lancashire. With a distinctive amber hue, Blacksticks Blue has a delicious creamy but tangy taste. The Barker family have been farming in Lancashire since 1932 and the dairy is currently run by the third generation of Barkers. We drizzled Acacia honey comb honey over this at the demo and it converted quite a few people who didn’t think they like blue cheese.
Creamy French Brie
Made in the Ducey Creamery Normandy, this mild and creamy brie has a refreshingly clean flavor and smooth buttery texture.
Goats Cheese Log
Made at the Abergavenny Creamery, which is the UK’s largest and most successful producer of fresh goats cheese. Very smooth and creamy with a fresh goat’s curd flavour and amazing with fresh raspberries and raw honey.
A young cheese crafted accordingly to a traditional recipe at Belton Farm in Shropshire. The Beckett family, who own Belton Farm, have been farming in the region since the 1920s. A creamy, delicate and slightly sweet cheese with a smooth texture. Traditionally quite lactic with some sweet notes and an apple flavour.
Cheese history and a cheese cause
It’s official. Cheese is in my blood. This slight overstatement is a result of listening to the Radio 4 Food Programme and hearing that evidence of cheese making 7000 years ago has just been proved in Poland (I’m half Polish). It also discusses the impact of destroying bacteria which can help save our lives along with those considered harmful in the pasteurisation process. The microbes in cheese is a complex issue that we still don’t understand everything about; raw milk cheeses were almost banished in the 1950s but thanks to campaigners like Patrick Rance, common sense prevailed. Bureaucracy is raising its ugly head again though and I’ve donated to a campaign organised by food writer and activist Joanna Blythman to raise £50,000 to Save Errington Cheeses and defend artisan cheesemakers. You can contribute to their crowdfunding campaign for legal costs here.
A shout out to Noreen of Noni’s Place who styled this beautiful festive table.
I was compensated for my involvement with this event, opinions my own (I loved their cheese!)
So, will there be cheese on your festive table?