What to include on a Cheese Board

Lincolnshire Poacher, Colston Bassett Blue Stilton and St. Anthony’s Goats Cheese.

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:

  1. Buy what you like.  Don’t waste money buying something you don’t like because you think it “should” be on a cheese board.
  2. 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.
  3. Try something new – bearing in mind rules 1 and 2 ask for a taste and buy it if you like it.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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:

Fresh Cheeses

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.

Soft Cheeses

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.

Semi-hard Cheese

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

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….

Blue Cheese

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.

Blended Cheese

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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Rain, Motorbikes and Pancakes.

It was 1982; I was 18 years old and heading to Cornwall for my first holiday with Martin; my then boyfriend. I had romantic notions of sunshine and beaches and long days punctuated with ice cream and beer.

Having packed all our gear there was just enough room for me on the back of the bike (a much-loved Yamaha SR500) so I squeezed on between Martin and panniers and top box and tent and we set off. And as we did, the rain began.

Now I learned an important thing about Martin on this trip: I learned that, for him a journey is simply a means to an end. It is not to be prolonged, stretched out or enjoyed and tea breaks are to be avoided at all costs. For him, riding the bike is pleasure enough. For me, to be cold and wet and hungry with restricted movement for 7 hours does not quite make it into the “pleasure” category. We did stop once for fuel and I managed to relieve the misery briefly by learning how to eat Quavers through a full face helmet at 70 mph.

By the time we arrived at the campsite, and despite the fact that I was dressed head to toe in Leather and Gortex, I was so wet that water was running out of the top of my boots. Before I could even think of getting warm and dry we had a tent to put up.

I am normally a cheerful, positive sort of person but by this stage I hated Martin, I hated bikes and I hated Cornwall. This relationship was clearly doomed.

We put up the tent and I have to admit I was grateful for Martin’s earlier membership of the Scouts and by the time the last peg went in a weak and watery sun was trying to break through the clouds. My brave boyfriend suggested a walk into the village: I sulked all the way but twenty minutes later we found ourselves at Trevaunance Cove peering in through the steamy windows of The Frying Dutchman and drooling over the incredible aromas.

We both ordered Smugglers’ Pancakes, fat, crispy pancakes topped with cheese, tomato and paprika. We ordered them with chips to which we got the incredulous response “With chips? Are you sure? … You haven’t been here before have you?” They were, of course, right – these were very filling pancakes; but it had been a long day and we were incredibly hungry…

I can still remember the spicy softness of those pancakes and how, with every mouthful I was a little warmer, a little dryer and a little happier. And they truly transformed my life turning hatred into love – without them, who knows what would have happened because 30 years later I live in Cornwall – within walking distance, in fact, of Trevaunance Cove.

As for Martin – we have now been married for over 27 years and yes we still have a motorbike but we also have a car for rainy days and we have sorted out that little problem about stopping so tea breaks are now a feature of every journey.

The only casualty of this encounter is The Frying Dutchman which, sadly, no longer exists.

I have included here a recipe for Smugglers’ Pancakes – it’s my own version and it changes every year so it is hopelessly lacking in authenticity.  In 1982 I was a vegetarian but now I’m not so I have added bacon to the mix.  Sometimes I add onion and garlic and I have tried chorizo instead of bacon – or brie instead of cheddar but they will always be called Smugglers’ Pancakes in our house in tribute to the beginning of my love affair with Cornwall.

Smugglers’ Pancakes Recipe