“There are no hard or fast rules,” says Alex James, award-winning cheese maker (and bassist in Blur). “One of my favourite Christmases was when my Dad and I sat with a huge block of cheddar and some pickled onions. There’s a lot to be said for having just one cheese, but make sure it’s big – about 1.5kg. I’d suggest cheddar or a blue. If I have a massive block of blue in my fridge, I’ve got something up my sleeve if people come around – I’m ready for anything!” Blues are particularly good come Christmas, reckons Alex. “It’s 12 weeks old and the milk used has enjoyed the last of the summer grasses to give it lots of flavour.”
However, combining different textures and tastes is the most popular approach to a cheeseboard. “If you want more than one – and most people probably do – then I’d go for a brie, a cheddar and a blue. Avoid cheese that is too similar because the less good one will then taste awful,” suggests Alex.
Hero Hirsh, Head of Retail for royal cheesemonger Paxton & Whitfield, agrees: “I always think the traditional hard, soft and blue combination works extremely well. You can then add in another more unusual cheese – for example, a fresh goats’ milk cheese or a washed-rind cheese – to add interest.”
There are no firm rules on what to have with your cheese either. Some think the combination of pickle and cheddar must never be compromised; others take a purist approach and won’t even have a cracker with their morsel. “I prefer apples and pears over grapes and celery,” says Alex. “They help reset your palette in between varieties. My ideal combination is fresh bread, cheese, apples, pears and mostarda [Italian mustard fruits].”
Leave your cheese in the fridge until shortly before you want to eat it, otherwise you can end up with it too warm and running off the cheeseboard. “How you treat the cheese has an important impact on your enjoyment of it,” explains Hero. “I would always recommend storing the cheese in a cold room or the bottom of the fridge - if possible, wrapped in waxed paper as this allows the cheese to breath. Before serving, bring the cheese out to warm up to room temperature; 20 minutes should be enough.”
Letting the cheese warm will improve its flavour. “A blue could even be left for 24 hours before consumption,” says Alex. “Then it gets creamy, Marmite-y and just comes alive. It tends to just get better and better over time".
Lots of people enjoy finishing their red wine from the main course with cheese, so you could choose to serve cheese before pudding. “I serve the cheeseboard after the main course,” explains Hero. “This means I can enjoy the savoury flavours from the main course through to the cheese course before going onto the sweetness of the pudding. You can, of course, have your cheese course after your pudding and leave the cheeseboard on the table so it can be nibbled at.”
Port is a popular pairing if cheese is the final course. “Blue cheese also goes very well with a sweet wine, like a Monbazillac. I often think a white burgundy is a good wine to serve with a selection of cheeses as it has good flavour and body that won’t dominate the palate,” suggests Hero.
Alex has a different angle: “I think drinking something fizzy works best – cider is my number one but also beer and champagne work. The fizziness really helps clean your tongue.”
If you serve cheese you genuinely love, the chances are your guests will love it too. A collection of three or four different cheeses, with some crisp fresh fruit on the side, is the safest option but, as we have seen, there are no rules, so why not be adventurous and seek out something new? And if you really want to push the boat out, make like SheerLuxe founder and editor Georgie Coleridge Cole and make a jar of truffled honey the star of the show. Comté has never tasted so good...
What should go on your cheeseboard?
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