Creating A Perfect Christmas Cheeseboard
Once upon a time insipid bits of soggy Cheddar and dried out Stilton (that needed to be revived with Port!) were about all that Britain could offer the cheese world, yet now Britain’s resurgent cheese scene means specialist cheese shops are on the increase and their counters sag under the weight amazing cheeses.
Award winning cheesemonger Andy Swinscoe of The Courtyard Dairy, who studied cheese-maturing in France before setting up his own business, is happy to give the low-down on what to look out for when choosing the best British cheeses to create a perfect Christmas cheeseboard:
“When you look at The Courtyard Dairy’s counter you see 30 unpasteurised farm-made cheeses from the UK. And 25 of them have only existed since 2005! The low-price of milk coupled with the public’s ever growing interest in quality food has meant many small farms have turned back to cheese-making, making a really flavoursome product, and keeping their farm sustainable. And since Christmas is a time of indulgence, it’s a great time to support the small rural farms that are making cheese by hand, and show your friends and family just how good British cheese can be.”
“First of all, it’s always good to have crowd pleaser on the cheeseboard – a hard cheese such as Cheddar or Lancashire, along with a good soft cheese (such as Brie) and a blue cheese to add balance. Personally I’d then add a couple of interesting and different cheeses, to introduce your guests to something new this Christmas. Stick at five cheeses on the board, though, otherwise there is just too much going on. Five quality and varied cheeses will be enough.”
So here’s Andy’s choice for the perfect Christmas cheeseboard:
- That classic Brie. Soft oozing Brie is a must, a delight to eat. Brie de Meaux from France has for a long time been the one to turn to for quality. Yet in the last three years Baron Bigod in the UK has fast become a real rival. Like the best Brie de Meaux, it has a thin, undulating round, with a rich silky-velvet texture and smooth mushroomy flavour. Oh – and it’s made with raw milk too, by a lovely young couple in Suffolk, Jonny and Dulcie Crickmore. Also worth looking out for are other fabulous small-scale soft cheeses such as Tunworth, St Jude, Finn and Chaser.
- Cheddar. Once upon a time if you wanted quality Cheddar in the UK you had to buy Montgomery’s, which is still a bastion of quality. Yet since the 1990s there have been many other producers popping up, each capturing the nature of their own farm and making real quality Cheddar that is unique in its own way. Look out for Westcombe, Barwhey’s, Dale End and Winterdale Shaw – all mighty fine farm Cheddars that will impress. The one on my cheeseboard this year will be Hafod Cheddar from Wales – it is softer than most, with a rich buttery note to complement its strong tangy flavour.
- An alternative to Stilton. Stilton is great. But gone are the days when the only blues you could find in the UK were Stilton, Gorgonzola, Danish Blue and Roquefort. Now even the supermarkets have a range of different and unusual blues. The one to watch, the one that will be on my cheeseboard this Christmas, is Young Buck. With many similarities to Stilton but made in Northern Ireland by a one-man band, Mike Thomson, using raw milk, this is a slightly softer, moister cheese with a rich complex flavour that makes even the most ardent Stilton lover in our shop go weak at the knees. A definite one to try. Also worth looking out for are Cote Hill Blue, Beenleigh Blue and Wrekin Blue.
- The Wild Card. Something you wouldn’t normally choose… For me, it’s Crookwheel – a hard sheep’s milk cheese made in south Cumbria by a smallholder with just two fields. It has rich flavour, farmy-notes and a complex finish. I also love Summer Field – Yorkshire answer to Comté – made with similar bacteria/methodology but taking on its character from the North Yorkshire Moors. Other interesting cheeses to look out for include the supple buttery washed-rind Rollright, Winslade (a British alternative to Vacherin) and St Cera.
- What about goats? Some people still think all goats’ milk cheese tastes like licking a goat! But times have changed and in keeping with all cheeses, quality goats cheeses are now balanced and not overpowering. My top ones to watch are Killeen Goat Gouda from Ireland, which has a smooth nutty, caramelised note, Capra Nouveau, a fruity supple washed-rind goats’ cheese, and Amalthea, a classic soft lactic goats’ cheese based on the likes of the French Crottin and Ste Maure.