Quelle Fromage: Our guide to building the perfect Christmas cheeseboard
Is there any better post-dinner indulgence than a cheeseboard? Clare Finney shares with us her guide to building the perfect festive fromage platter
A long, long time ago – April 2020 – I started a weekly series of Instagram videos called Fromage Fri, in which I talked about cheese every Friday. I hoped to spread the word about the perils facing cheesemakers thanks to the pandemic; I wanted to start drinking wine at 5pm on Fridays; and, well, it was April 2020. I learned a lot – most of it powerfully unhelpful, like the reason Valençay is a truncated pyramid (Napoleon allegedly sliced the top off in rage after losing to the Egyptians) but come Christmas, my box of cheese facts and I can come in handy. So, in the spirit of stilton and sharing, I’ll pass some around.
Let’s start with buying your cheese. You could go to your supermarket, swipe one of those pre-sliced ‘Christmas cheese platters’ off the shelves and go home happy. Except you won’t be – because unless you’re somewhere like Whole Foods those cheeses will have come from unhappy cows. Good cheese starts with good milk. Good milk starts with cows that have fed on grass all through spring and summer, and silage (stored grass, essentially) come November. No cheesemaker who cares about the quality of their cheese will source milk from a centralised dairy without knowing which farms it is from or what the cows have been fed – but industrial scale cheese manufacturers will, because they care first and foremost for the bottom line. That’s before you even get into cheesemaking itself, which should be a slow and delicate process, best done by hand or by limited machinery under the watch of an experienced maker. Those are just some of the reasons why the cheese in cheese shops taste materially better than those pre-packaged slices. Neal’s Yard Dairy, Courtyard Dairy, The Fine Cheese Co and La Fromagerie are all excellent, and have an extensive selection online.
Next is storing your cheese. Resist the lure of the Tupperware and the siren call of the clingfilm; both will make your cheese humid, and might even precipitate some premature surface mould. This mould is edible – but it will taint the taste of the cheese. Instead, use waxed paper or even baking paper to wrap it up snug, but not so tight it can’t breathe. Imagine tucking a favourite child up in bed at night.
Convention dictates that a cheeseboard should boast a blue, a goats, a hard cheese and a soft one with a white rind, like a camembert or brie. I say – consider whatever you and your guests like, avoid what they don’t like, then try to find a balance of textures and colours. The accompaniments take a little more thought. If you’re having cheese as a starter you’re either mad or Italian but regardless, pair light, thin crackers, celery and nuts, not bread with it. If your cheese is dessert, then ditto: fruit is nice at this point, maybe some oat biscuits, but bread is overkill. However, if it’s actual dinner, part of a buffet at a drinks party, or late, post Christmas lunch snack situation, baguette or thinly sliced sourdough as well as crudités etc will go down very well.
Convention can also get in the bin when it comes to wine, because whilst red wine is a famous friend of fromage, it is not always a good one. In fact the tannins in red wine can actually clash with many cheeses, which would be better served by sparkling or white. The natural acidity of white wine is perfect for fresh and crumbly cheese, and as for buttery whites; the clues in the description. Bread & Butter’s California Chardonnay and a hunk of gruyère is the only breadless sandwich I’ll ever accept.
Finally, the cutting! No really, there is a right and a wrong way to cut cheese. The biggest fromage faux pas is cutting the nose off a cheese, rather than slicing it lengthways – not just because it ruins the sight of the slice, but because the cheese tastes differently from the centre to the rind and a lengthways slice allows you to taste through the range of flavour profiles. Which reminds me, the rind: try not to remove it unless it is made of cloth, plastic or wax – i.e. obviously inedible. Many cheese people maintain it’s the best bit, and even if you don’t agree, eating it will make you look and feel like a cheese person. If you can’t bear the thought of it, save them and chuck them in risotto or béchamel.