Christmas is about overindulgence. It’s about pausing between mouthfuls of stuffing – not for breath – but to shout out ‘charades!’ before slapping that fifth potato from Uncle Chris’ hand because you haven’t had YOUR extras yet!
If you don’t have something to eat at every moment of the day, then you’re doing it wrong. Now, after 28 Christmases, I believe I have mastered ‘pacing’, but when it comes to the cheeseboard it’s #TooGoodToWait and all control goes out of the window. The lure of sweet things – the mince pies, the Christmas pudding, the yule log – all pale into insignificance as you take the first slice of a crumbly cheddar.
As one of my favourite courses at Christmas, I wanted to offer up some advice on how to assemble the perfect cheeseboard (and there’s more to it than you’d think)!
CHEESE OF CHOICE
There should be 3-4 cheeses. Any more than that and there’s too much for the palate to enjoy. So with such a reserved number of cheeses, it’s important to include different styles, textures and flavours. Now, put away your packet of sandwich cheddar and don’t you DARE buy pre-sliced, it’s time to treat yourself and your taste buds with a sophisticated lineup.
A SOFT CHEESE
I often use this as my ‘lightest’ flavour option that mellows out the tang of your blues and the nuttiness of your hard cheeses. White mould cheeses can smell of wild mushrooms and hay bales, with a buttery, earthy taste. The older the cheese, the runnier it should be, but if it smells of ammonia, it’s past its best.
Waitrose Christmas French Brie Strength 3 – A fabulously oozy, mellow but characterful Brie. It has enough flavour and a slight nuttiness that cheese aficionado will be satisfied, but its creamy texture and seductive softness are gentle enough for those who simply want cheese on crackers. Now, do me a favour and stop cutting off the rind! The mould is as much a part of the cheese as the middle and holds a delightful mushroom-like taste.
A HARD CHEESE
Cheddar is the workhorse of the British cheeseboard all year round, so it’s well worth swapping out your lunchbox favourite for a vintage special. Alternatively, push the boat out and go for a Gloucester, Red Leicester or a Wensleydale. Unlike the novelty items in your Christmas stockings (making an inevitable charity shop donation on January 2nd), Christmas hard cheeses can be delightfully speckled with seasonal fruits and nuts. I’m a purist who enjoys a balanced, creamy, crumbly Wensleydale as is, but a splattering of sweet cranberries can be a real crowd-pleaser.
Black Bomber Extra Mature Cheddar – This rich and tangy cheddar is the perfect accompaniment to traditional ale or a dry cider. Cracked, crumbly and mottled with calcium lactate (the white crystals that give such cheddars their gentle crunch). It also makes a mean cheese and chutney sandwich on Boxing Day!
An icon of the cheese world and a real divider amongst the ranks. For me, a creamy blue, ripe and soft (like cold-butter), is the one! Strong enough to wake you from your food lethargy and give you a second wind for the evening’s Christmas limbo (everyone does the limbo at Christmas, right?). Either way, encourage your guests to save this until last, as its big mineral bite can overpower the other cheeses.
Waitrose creamy blue mature Long Clawson Stilton cheese, strength 4 – With plenty of vibrant blue mould veining, this stilton has the ultimate soft and mottled appearance. Tangy and salty notes are punchy on the palate while a balanced creaminess and fruitiness liven up the aroma. Bitter and earthy, it has a complex and varied flavour profile. Though a little bit crumbly, the smooth and almost buttery texture is perfect.
To mark the significance of this particular day, it’s worth serving something you may not necessarily be drawn to on your lunchtime toastie. You could add a washed-rind cheese; a sheep’s cheese; smoked cheese; a goat’s cheese or cheese flavoured with herbs. A little something for everyone!
Waitrose Christmas Goat’s Cheese & Tomato Snowballs – Soft French goats cheese with a sun-dried tomato puree centre. The natural acidity of the tomatoes gives a lovely lift to the mousse-like goat’s cheese. The distinctive tart, ‘goaty’ flavour is the clincher and really sets this canapé style cheese apart.
The purist’s water biscuit, the classic cream cracker, the crumbly oatcake, the savoury digestive, classy charcoal squares, sophisticated crispbreads – the cracker accompaniment is a minefield. But, there’s really no need to go mad! Blue cheeses go best with something a bit sweet and soft cheeses with a crisp, light cracker, but something neutral should work with everything.
Waitrose biscuits for cheese – Crisp, savoury biscuits speckled with seeds, nuts and fruit made by a heritage bakery in Dorset. Exciting combinations of beetroot and charcoal add colour to your board, too!
If the artisan cracker market wasn’t mind-boggling enough, welcome to food and drink pairing. Some are deeply ingrained like Port and Stilton – a seasonal match first made in the 18th century that still works today. However, sweet white wines and malty beers can be just as good with Stilton’s salty intensity. As a general rule of thumb, the more pungent the cheese you choose, the sweeter the wine should be. Blue cheeses are best matched to a sweeter style of wine such as a dessert wine or a port. Soft cheese needs something that doesn’t have any tannins, ideally a white with zingy acidity or a lighter-style red. White wines especially Sauvignon Blancs are perfect with a range of hard cheese from mild cheddars to regional favourites such as double Gloucester or red Leicester.
Journey’s End Sir Lowry Cabernet Sauvignon – With 18 months of barrel ageing, this rich red is packed with dark plums, chocolate and sweet spice flavours. Its bold South African style will match up well with the intense flavour of aged cheddar.
Escarpment The Edge Pinot Noir from New Zealand – While Brie can be difficult to match because of the rind, dry sparkling wine or champagne will work well with this cheese and will neutralise the tangy taste of the rind.
If you’ve chosen your cheeses well, you shouldn’t need nor want to lay on too many additional flavours, but a lovely chutney and seasonal fruits and nuts not only offer new textures, they are colour to an otherwise beige cheeseboard canvas!
SIZING, STORING AND SERVICE!
A bigger block will not only serve more people but maintain its freshness. I always like to buy straight from the cheese counter, not only to get a perfect size and shape for my table but to have a natter with knowledgeable cheese specialists. Most of these tips have been learnt from regular debriefs with the wonderful staff at Waitrose & Partners.
It’s called a cheese BOARD for a reason. Grab yourself a beautiful hunk of wood and go wild. No need to be too strategic in how they are laid out. Often the ‘scattered’ tactic makes for a sumptuously rustic look. By bundling it all onto one plate, you also play a part in the true sentiment of Christmas – sharing. Reaching over one another, grabbing a slice and clashing knives on the stilton makes for a lot of loving interaction.
To help people know where to go, number your cheeses with little flags – guiding your guests from mild to strong – you need to start mild so you can actually taste each one as you go. Cheese is happiest wrapped in greaseproof paper, or even tin foil, so unpack and re-wrap it once you get home if you need to. In the grocery store, most cheeses (unless they’re vacuum packed) are kept cold in a refrigerated section, so it’s logical to assume that cheese should be served cold. However, cheese is at its best when served at room temperature, so remove it from refrigeration at least a half-hour before serving. If you have a large piece of cheese, only take out what you intend to serve.
If there even is such a thing, hard cheeses that are past their best can always be melted into a sauce or fondue, but choose well, and look after them, and you won’t need to resort to such violence.
Be sure to pop into your local Waitrose & Partners as most of their branches have a dedicated cheese specialist who can help you put together the most amazing cheeseboard! Also, if you’d like to try any cheese from the service counter, just ask.
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