Ed Smith offers his guidance on constructing the perfect Christmas cheeseboard
Words: Ed Smith
Compiling the perfect cheeseboard is a harder task than some people think—a pleasure, of course, but a tricky job nonetheless. So it was with some trepidation that I accepted Borough Market’s request to curate a board for them this year.
Ordinarily I’m a fan of keeping things minimal, with large wedges and rounds of just one, perhaps two cheeses. I feel that allows you to really enjoy that cheese to the max, without other cheeses diluting the mix, or over-filling the stomach. I hate to break the myth, but, there can be such a thing as too much cheese (at least, after a meal).
But the Christmas cheeseboard? You see, the Christmas cheese board is different, because (a) it’s Christmas (the clue is in the title) and (b) while the cheese board is technically there at the end of the Christmas lunch (or dinner), no self-respecting turkey, goose or beef eater should have any room for it. In fact, the festive cheese selection bridges the afternoon, supper, probably into Boxing Day too. Which means there’s room for more cheese—by which I mean both bigger wedges and more of them.
To my mind the perfect festive cheese board is made up of six components, plus a handful of complementary condiments.
A goat or ewe’s milk cheese
A semi-soft, white cheese
A blue cheese
A washed rind cheese
A hard cheese or a ‘novelty’ option
The above selection provides balance, an opportunity to include both old favourites and newcomers, the ability to pick cheeses from a variety of locations, and the possibility of choosing a couple of lower-cost cheeses, while splashing out on some ‘heroes’.
I’d like to drop the mic and leave things right there. But my editor has suggested that doesn’t quite fulfil my brief. So after a punishing day of tasting, no small amount of indecision, at least one tantrum and a tear or two, I’m pleased (and a little bit nervous) to list the following as my Christmas cheese board for 2016:
Kentish goat’s cheese log, Ellie’s Dairy
In many ways, this is the hardest category to pick a cheese from. There are many different directions to go: a little crottin (a soft, almost curd-like pot), hard and chalky, charcoal-dusted, tangy, dry, citrus-like… I could go on. Personally, though, I think you need a guaranteed crowd-pleaser. One that’s soft in flavour, rather than an acidic paint-stripper, though it should still be tangy and interesting.
The Market’s French cheesemongers are ideally placed to help on this. However, I was drawn to the Ellie’s Dairy stall, where they sell cheeses made from their own goats, farmed on the North Downs in Kent.
I decided to go with their Kentish log, which is cylindrical in shape with a soft white ‘bloom’ on the outside. It’s got exactly the kind of balance between tang and luscious dairy, chalkiness and cream that I’m looking for. It also looks great on a board.
Lord London, Alsop and Walker
Two of my favourite cheeses qualify for this category: a classic brie de meaux, and a British Tunworth from Hampshire (one of our nation’s very best cheese).
This year, though, there are a couple of French cheeses elsewhere on the board, and I fancied branching out from the Tunworth, lovely though it is.
My eyes were turned at Alsop and Walker’s stand by its award-winning Lord London. Though this is firmly in the brie family of white blooming, semi-soft, mild cheese, its conical shape is pretty unique and makes a great statement over the Christmas period (for as long as you’re able to keep it intact, that is). It’s made in East Sussex from pasteurised cow’s milk, is creamy with a hint of citrus, and will disappear very quickly.
Isle of Mull cheddar, Neal’s Yard
You’ve got to have cheddar at Christmas. Absolutely have to. Which leads to our third and final British cheese.
The real question is whether you head to the West Country (Keen’s, Montgomery’s or Westcombe), or take a trip to Wales (Hafod), Lincolnshire (for Poacher), or Scotland (Isle of Mull).
There’s no right answer. And to an extent this is really one to decide when having a taste at the Neal’s Yard shop. But I was drawn to the Isle of Mull. It’s hearty, deceptively mature and complex— the flavours changed as I tasted—and it also helps to balance the cost of my board, being one of the lower-priced cheddars. Moreover, Isle of Mull goes particularly well with honeycomb, which is one of my suggested condiments (see below).
Blue de gex, The French Comte
Having just decreed that cheddar absolutely must be on the Christmas cheeseboard, it may come as a surprise to read that, just occasionally, Stilton can take a break. Only occasionally, mind—one out of every six years seems about right.
By complete coincidence, 2016 is one of those years. While it’s normally a toss up between whichever of Colston Bassett or stichelton is tasting better, this year I’ve settled with a bleu de gex from the Jura region of France. The blue veins are denser than on a Stilton, but I find some similarities—semi soft, creamy, a little crumbly, not too overpowering on the nose, slightly nutty… and ultimately delicious. I think it’s a great option.
Époisses, Mons Cheese
Washed rind cheeses have been dipped in brine or alcohol as they mature. This keeps them moist, soft and supple, and often lends an orange tint to their rind. That’s the technical description. For the layman like me, the best way to find a washed rind cheese it to follow your nose. Because these are the cheeses that tend to really pong.
Again, there are plenty of options, but I settled on an Époisses, which is one of my all-time top five cheeses (with a mature Comte and I’m not sure what else).
It’s made in Burgundy, dipped in the local brandy and ripens with a wonderfully pungent sweaty sock kind of quality. There’s a real lactic tang when you eat it, and if you buy it so it’s ready to eat on Christmas day, you’ll need to use a spoon to scoop it from its wooden box.
Maybe not everyone will love it—but that means there’s more for you.
Truffled cow’s cheese, Bianca e Mora
Stop. Step away from the wensleydale with cranberries. This part of the board is reserved for a hard cheese like Beaufort, comte, Cornish yarg, Ogleshield, and so on.
Admittedly this Christmas, though, I am going to be a bit ‘out there’. Sometimes you see brie de meaux that’s filled, like a cake, with truffled cream. My choice of hard cheese is on that theme, but is from Italy not France, and is hard, not soft and creamy.
Bianca e Mora’s truffled cow’s cheese is dusted and flecked with black truffle. It’s a great-tasting, creamy, slightly sweet cheese in its own right, but the truffle is very definite and adds a luxurious dimension to the cheese and to the board. I loved the balance (sometimes truffle oil and so on is too much, I find), and I’d be surprised if I was alone in that. A great finish.
No cheese board is complete without a few condiments: both bread and crackers to pair with the cheese, one or two chutneys, fruits or sweet things to cut through the richness of the dairy and a wee dram to wash it all down.
There’s so much choice at The Market, but I plumped for:
Ginger thins and Dark rye fruit bread, Karaway Bakery
Karaway’s ginger thins are a cracking, fine biscuit with a lovely malt and ginger flavour. You’ll want a plainer biscuit, too, but I loved the subtly sweet biscuit and firm snap, particularly in support of the Lord London and the Isle of Mull.
The dark rye fruit bread almost negates the need for any condiments at all. It’s jammed with dried fruits, and there’s real flavour in the dark rye flour that Karaway use. Then, just as you think all the flavours are done, a subtle undertone of caraway seed comes through. Really lovely.
Devon honeycomb, From Field and Flower
If you’ve never tried real honeycomb with good cheddar, prepare to have your mind blown. A nugget of this with Isle of Mull is one of life’s perfect combinations. Great with the other white cheeses and truffle cheese, too.
Damson paste, Neal’s Yard Dairy
If quince cheese or membrillo is your sort of thing, consider the damson paste at Neal’s Yard. It’s striking, dark and moody appearance hints at the intense autumnal flavours you get when you eat it. It’s sweet but not jammy, and excellent with the goat’s cheese and the bleu de gex—not least if you’re cracking on with the sloe or damson gin at the same time.
Oliver’s Gold Rush cider, The Cider House
While port, sweet wine or red wine are usually the drinks pairings, I’m conscious that the Christmas cheese board really is often a meal in itself. How about opening a bottle of cider for the occasion? New Forest Cider have a number on show, but I loved Oliver’s Gold Rush cider, made in Herefordshire. It’s a sparkling, medium-dry cider, which has a hint of tannins and is otherwise all apple skin and sweet flesh. An all-rounder, though particularly strong with the cheddar, white and goat’s cheese.