A question of cheese

Categories: Expert guidance

Food writer, cookbook author and journalist Sue Quinn answers questions, both trivial and significant, on the subject of festive fromage

Rejoice! Along with novelty knits, roast turkey and post-prandial napping, cheese is compulsory under the laws of Christmas. Whether mobilised after pudding or left out for general grazing, cheese is a crucial savoury counterbalance to all that mince pie and Yule log excess. So, in the spirit of cheesy over-indulgence, here’s our guide to the trivial and the significant when it comes to festive fromage.

What does a balanced cheese board look like?
Culinary bible Larousse Gastronomique declares that a decent cheeseboard should boast at least three different types, but helpfully notes: “Enthusiasts like to have a choice of five or six.” Bear in mind that larger hunks keep better than smaller ones, so don’t go for a smorgasbord of tiny bits if you won’t eat it all in one sitting. At least one big chunk each of a soft, a hard and a blue cheese is a good rule of thumb for a perfect balance of flavour and texture.

What’s the polite way to cut cheese?
Cheese etiquette demands sharing the best bits, not just hacking away to suit yourself: we’re turophiles* not barbarians, yes? Soft round cheese such as camembert is easy: just cut like a cake into triangle-shaped pieces. For wedges of blue cheese like roquefort, make diagonal cuts radiating out from the bottom centre of the thin edge. Cut logs and blocks of cheese crossways in even slices. For hard rind cheeses like gouda or comte, start by cutting the wedge into two pieces crossways about one-third of the way down. Cut the larger portion into long slices parallel to the rind, and the smaller portion into pieces perpendicular to the longest side.

When it comes to wedges of soft round cheese like brie, opinion is divided about whether to remove the tip or ‘nose’, the ripest and tastiest bit. The general consensus is no! Just cut narrow wedges from the point, so everything is shared. Others say this is tricky with a cheese that’s flowing in the middle. Rather, they argue, cut off a generous piece of the gooey nose for everyone to share, then slice long pieces from the remainder of the wedge.

How do I store Christmas cheese?
Cheese should ideally be eaten as soon as possible after being cut. Not practical? Wrap your cheese in wax paper, as this allows it to breathe without drying out too quickly—ask your supplier for a few spare sheets. (Step away from the cling film when storing cheese, it leads to sweaty unpleasantness). Give your wrapped cheese a lovely home in a sealed container in the fridge, but don’t forget to take it out a couple of hours before serving. Cheese is best enjoyed at room temperature; serving it cold is a crime.

Why does washed rind cheese pong?
If an eye-watering aroma hits you when you open the fridge, that’s your washed rind cheese saying hello. The funky smell results from regular washing of the rind with briny water, or sometimes wine, beer, cider or spirits. This encourages the growth of brevibacterium linens and other microbes, which not only make the cheese whiff, but give it a distinctive orange hue and a soft rind. The bacteria also influence the flowing, gooey texture. But don’t be deterred by the pungent smell—the bark of washed rind cheese is often worse than its bite.

Is cheese rind edible?
Cheese rinds vary from the very hard (parmigiano reggiano) to the very soft (camembert) but all of it is edible. Whether you choose to tuck in depends on your personal taste.

How do the blue bits get into roquefort?
In the olden days, before white coats and stainless steel, cheesemakers near the French town of Roquefort would leave loaves of bread in local caves to collect spores of penicillium roqueforti, a mould found naturally in the humid air and in the soil. After a month or two, the fungus consumed the bread and cheesemakers ground the mouldy loaves into powder, which they added to the curds. These days, roquefort is inoculated with lab-grown penicillium roqueforti, but is still left to age in the original caves. The mould grows from the inside out of the cheese, forming those lusciously piquant blue veins.

Why are there holes in Swiss cheese?
Swiss cheese like emmental is the perfect environment for microbes called propionibacterium freudenreichii to thrive. As well as helping to create the mellow, nutty flavour, the microbes also burp carbon dioxide, bestowing the cheese with distinctive holes or ‘eyes’. It is now speculated that the holes are formed around microscopic particles of hay that get mixed up in the milk and scientists theorise that problems with Swiss cheese being born blind (without holes) are caused by modern cheesemaking methods that make milk excessively clean.

Who are the world’s biggest cheese gluttons?
It might feel like we consume our own bodyweight of the stuff at Christmas, but actually the British are amateurs on the world cheese-eating stage. The Fins, French and Norwegians top the cheese glutton league table, chowing through almost 14kg per head in 2017, according to market research provider Euromonitor International. UK cheese lovers managed 24th place, with a measly 6kg each.

*Turophile: a person who loves cheese