As Christmas arrives and family and friends gather, one of my favourite parts of the Christmas day feast is the cheese board. I always make sure I’ve left a little room after the turkey and Christmas pudding, so that I can help myself to something off the cheeseboard. Nearly all supermarkets and stores have ready-made cheese boards - but it can be a lot of fun and usually more rewarding to create your own board.
So where to start? Well, logistically speaking, you’ll need to work out how many people you are catering for and whether or not you intend the board to be part of a light snack at the end of the meal or a mainstay of an evening buffet. 100-150g of cheese per person is a good rule of thumb. By all means go bigger if you wish but it is worth remembering that if you load up the board with too many different cheeses, there is a good chance people won’t try them all or it will be too much for your guest’s palates.
You should also try to think of the guests you are serving the cheese to. You may be a big fan of a particular stinky washed-rind cheese or a strongly flavoured blue but some of your guests may not be so enamoured! It may be worth playing it a bit safer than you normally would. That doesn’t mean either, that you have to go for the same old boring Cheddar, Stilton and Brie trio that you see in nearly all supermarket cheese boards, though that isn’t to say that there aren’t exceptional versions of these cheeses available. It is a good idea to pick different textures and types of cheese, to give a bit of variety to the board - which is often why these three cheeses are usually selected.
Picking cheeses made from different milk is also a good idea, maybe try to include a goat’s cheese and/or a sheep’s cheese to the ones made from cow’s milk. Try a Camel’s milk or Donkey’s milk cheese if you really want to capture their imagination!
Selecting cheeses from different countries can be fun too, a nice Pont l'Evêque from France, A Manchego (made from the milk of the Manchega sheep) or the more rustic Queso Roncal - another Sheep’s milk cheese also from Spain, goes well with a Rauchkäse, a good smoked cheese hailing from Bavaria in Germany. This can be a good way of picking more unusual cheeses and ensures that your cheese board ends up different from the usual run of the mill shop-bought ones.
Personally, I like to pick between 4-7 cheeses to go on my board, making sure that I include a good blue, a soft goat’s cheese and a surface- ripened, bloomy rind type too. After that, it is down to personal preference, I usually opt for a smoked cheese and something sweeter like a Wensleydale with cranberries or apricots in, which always goes down well at Christmas.
To accompany the cheeses on the board, I like to add crackers. I go for a few different types, an oatcake biscuit and a thin, wafer type that isn’t too strongly flavoured, so the cheese on top of it really gets a chance to shine and then maybe a nice sourdough biscuit to finish. I also like to add crusty bread and unsalted butter too. A choice of chutneys is a must, perhaps a jam and then some grapes, a few thin slices of apple and some figs can be added as well. I decorate the board with celery sticks, a handful of cherry tomatoes, olives and pickles finish the board off nicely.
How to serve: A few basic rules that can help - cut soft cheeses like Brie when it’s cold and if you can, use a proper soft cheese knife.
For very soft cheeses you might use a wire bow cutter.
Allow enough time for the cheeses to reach room temperature before serving - about an hour or so. They will taste better and you’ll get the real flavour of the cheese.
Cut cheese only when you need to, it will last longer. For harder cheeses use a cheese slicer to flake off slices of cheese onto your cracker.
To accompany the cheese:
There is a bewildering variety of literature about pairing wines with cheeses - but here are a few basic rules to abide by:
Light red wines go well with soft cheeses.
Stronger wines go better with more strongly flavoured cheeses.
Sweet dessert wines and ports can be offset by salty cheeses like Stilton.
Stick to these basic rules and you won’t go far wrong!
If you fancy supporting your local cheesemaker - and let’s face it, they’ve had a tough time since Brexit, Covid-19 and the recent energy crisis, many of them sell their cheeses online and several do their own ready-made cheese boards to order, which saves you all the effort! Here’s a list of some of my favourites….