Last weekend I was shopping in Tavistock with a friend when we stumbled on a fantastic cheese shop – I thought I had died and gone to heaven. Then I remembered that we were camping, without a fridge, so, with extreme difficulty, I summoned up some restraint and restricted myself to some Cornish Crumbly which I had never tried before (it’s delicious by the way)..
Later that evening we were sitting outside the vans with a beer, some olives and a big lump of cheese pretending that it was still summer and that we weren’t experiencing the tail end of a hurricane and the first chills of Autumn.
On Monday, back in the real world, I was listening to Radio 4 and you can imagine my joy when they mentioned that this week is British Cheese week – now I had all the excuse I needed to enter into a bun scuffle cheese frenzy.
Twenty years or so ago I managed the provisions section for a large grocers. We stocked 198 different cheeses on the deli counter (I never did make it to a round 200) and much of my life was spent trying new cheeses and advising customers on the best cheeses for their needs, whether that was for cooking, informal dinners or for a spectacular party spread.
Generally speaking I found that people don’t pay much attention to cheese – they spend ages planning a menu that flows and then add cheese as an afterthought. And that’s not just at home – I have often been disappointed by overpriced, unimaginative cheese boards in restaurants too where you would expect the chefs to know better.
If you are not sure where to start consider these basic rules:
- Buy what you like. Don’t waste money buying something you don’t like because you think it “should” be on a cheese board.
- Buy your cheese in a specialist cheese shop or at a deli because you should get some knowledgeable advice and you can try before you buy.
- Try something new – bearing in mind rules 1 and 2 ask for a taste and buy it if you like it.
- Be generous – it is better to offer your guests less choice than mean portions. A good chunk of mature farmhouse cheddar with some fruit or chutney can look and taste amazing all on its own.
- Consider buying a British (or better still a local) version of your favourites – they are usually just as good and often even better than their French or Italian counterparts.
- Whatever you buy serve it at room temperature – never chilled.
Cheeses generally fit into the following categories but you don’t need to include them all on a cheese board:
These cheeses are often quite wet and have a short shelf life. They also have more delicate flavours and extra “oomph” may be added through the addition of herbs or garlic. Think Ricotta or Mozzarella – both of which are now also made in the UK.
These are firmer than fresh cheeses and benefit from maturing but still have a relatively short shelf life. Think Camembert and Brie – my personal favourite British Brie is St. Endellion made here in Cornwall, it is rich and creamy and absolutely at its best when it is ripe and oozing. I also love White Nancy; a soft goats’ milk cheese made in Somerset and St. Anthony’s Goats Cheese also made here in Cornwall.
The best (but possibly least appetising) way of describing these cheeses is “rubbery”. Edam is a semi-hard cheese which will give you some idea of what I am talking about. British cheeses in this category include Cornish Yarg which is firm and creamy under the rind and yet more crumbly in the centre – it is traditionally wrapped in nettle leaves (nicer than it sounds) but I also love the newer version which is wrapped in wild garlic leaves.
Hard cheese consists of both firm (think cheddar) and crumbly (think Lancashire) cheese and it becomes hard as a result of longer maturing. The more mature a cheese it the more it is likely to cost because it takes longer for the cheese maker to get a return on his/her investment. The good news is that the stronger the flavour – the less you need. Really mature cheddar is salt sharp and has deep bass notes of flavour that you just don’t get in most of the mass produced cheeses. But Cheddar is not the only hard cheese out there – try a variant such as Lincolnshire Poacher or Double Gloucester.
If I chose a crumbly cheese for my cheese board it would have to be Cheshire just for its nostalgia value – I grew up in Cheshire surrounded by dairy herds grazing mile upon mile of pasture land and have fond memories of the lady on the cheese stall at Northwich Market who always gave me a chunk of Cheshire cheese to eat whilst shopping with my mum. The adult me is slightly shocked by the fact that my favourite way to eat it was sandwiched between two slices of white bread and slathered in strawberry jam! But then again….
The obvious blue cheese to mention is Blue Stilton but I suspect many people who have tried and disliked stilton have decided that they therefore don’t like blue cheese at all. And yet there are so many other, milder blue cheeses which may be more to their taste. My personal favourite is Blacksticks Blue which is a soft textured, amber coloured cheese shot through with delicate blue veining. It looks pretty and tastes great too.
A blended cheese can come from any of the categories above but will include other flavours such as White Stilton with Apricots or Double Gloucester with Chives and Onion.
If you choose a one cheese board try to buy the very best you can; an extra mature cheddar, a hunk of blue stilton or a whole white brie can look and taste wonderful. The added benefit of this choice is that you can easily match your wine to the cheese. I bought the cheese in the photos from Mike Freeman at The Cheese Shop in Truro who gave me a quick lesson in what is required. Stilton is strong and salty and needs something sweet to balance it, traditionally this would be port but a dessert wine would work too. Soft cheeses such as brie and camembert benefit from something that cuts through the creaminess such as a crisp chablis, whilst a Pinot Noir or Sauvignon Blanc work well with cheddar.
A two cheese board traditionally combines a soft and a hard cheese or a hard and a blue whilst a three cheese board might include one soft, one hard and one blue cheese – but there is no law which says you can’t serve 2 hard cheeses or 2 soft – use your imagination and trust your instincts.
If you are feeding lots of people you could go the whole hog and include something from every category. Try serving something like a Sauternes with a mixed cheese board as it is quite forgiving.
If you serve crackers with your cheese try to choose something simple which doesn’t compete with the flavours or, if it was a light meal, serve it with some crusty bread. Cheese also works well with fruit– slices of apple, ripe figs and maybe a handful of nuts work well – or possibly a chutney or a few pickles.
Whatever you serve this is the course to linger over, all the cooking has been done, the cleaning up will wait, the cheese and, “oh go on then just one more glass of wine”, is what brings your dinner to a perfect end – so it’s worth a little thought…
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