For most of us the festive season is not a time of frugality or healthy-eating. The winter as a whole makes us crave hearty, even stodgy, food but at Christmas we can really go to town. From meats to sauces, drinks to sweet treats, everything is about richness and feasting. I like to think that rather than just being a greedy oink, I’m responding to a primeval call; just as once our ancestors would have made the most of times of excess before they hunkered down in their caves, so too do we fill our boots in December. An ex-colleague of mine called it ‘laying down fat for the winter’ but then she was always a bit harsh.
So it is that at Christmas-time, as with everything else, we want cheese that’s hale-and-hearty, cheese with bite and punch and body that wakes up your mouth and fills your stomach. Cheese at Christmas can be great after a meal when you’re sick of all the puddings and cakes but it’s also a tasty accompaniment for all the post-prandial nibbling that goes on, to accompany the scraps of meat and stuffing and congealed bits of bread sauce. But what cheeses to buy?
As with any cheeseboard, it’s good to go with a mixture of styles, textures and flavours. Stilton is traditional around Christmas-time, as cheeses peaking at this time will have been made from the last of the rich summer milk. Similarly, mature cheddars at about 15 months old will contain the milk from the previous summer. But what else to choose? As with previous posts about The Perfect Summer Cheeseboard? and The Perfect Autumn Cheeseboard?, I turned to three cheesemongers and asked them what they’d be putting on their Yuletide cheeseboard this year.
One last thing – it can be easy to forget the cheese and end up making a last-minute mercy dash for something sweaty with cranberries in. If you can, it’s better to visit a decent cheese-monger or deli; for months in advance they’ll have been planning for Christmas, poking and stroking and generally cajoling their cheeses to ensure that they’re in the optimum condition for the festive period. Check out the links below to see what options these cheesemongers are offering for Christmas or go along and talk to your local cheesemonger. Enjoy!
Over to the experts…
For Emma Dandy at La Crèmerie in Hertfordshire, Berkswell is her first choice. A hard unpasteurised sheep’s milk cheese from the West Midlands, Emma describes it as ‘rich, slightly sweet, fruity and nutty with good length of flavour that really lasts in the mouth for some time.’ It also makes a talking point with its beautiful rind, patterned by the colander in which it’s made. Every cheeseboard needs something goaty and so next to take its place is Ticklemore. A hard pasteurised cheese from goats that graze freely on the edge of Dartmoor in Devon, it brings ‘light, gentle, floral and creamy flavours and a moist, crumbly texture.’ The cows take their place with Kirkham’s Lancashire, a crumbly unpasteurised cheese from the county of the same name. Traditionally made with the curd of three days of cheese-making, Kirkham’s is ‘a wonderful, full-flavoured Lancashire with lemony, yogurty and savoury flavours with a tangy bite on the finish.’
A softer addition is St Jude, a little creamy soft cheese from Hampshire, made with unpasteurised cow’s milk. Made gently and slowly, with great respect for the cows and their milk, ‘this new cheese is a stunner and has milky, buttery flavours and a wonderful oozing and creamy texture under a delicate white rind.’
Emma’s last two choices are sure to please those who like a punchy cheese. Gubbeen, a semi-soft pasteurised cow’s milk cheese from County Cork, is ‘a mellow and light washed-rind cheese that has meaty and quite savoury flavours.’ And for the all-important blues, Stichelton, which follows the recipe for Stilton but differs in its use of unpasteurised milk. Emma says of it that ‘the flavours of this blue cheese are cool and buttery with underlying nutty, toasty notes and a spicy element from the blue mould. The cheesemaker believes that the unpasteurised milk gives a richer, creamier cheese with more spicy blue moulds.’
And to wash it all down? ‘A medium-bodied red wine such as a Pinot Noir from Burgundy,’ says Emma.
Our next cheese guru is Sue Cloke from Cheese at Leadenhall in London. Her first cheeseboard choice is Colston Bassett Stilton which is ‘a must at Christmas.’ One of the most traditional Stiltons that you can buy, get it while you can as people queue around the block for it at Christmas. Sue says of it that it’s ‘creamy, yet has the distinctive blue tang and richness associated with Stilton. It can be served with port or a full bodied red wine.’ A sheep’s cheese is next on the menu and Sue describes Ossau Iraty as a ‘more unusual choice.’ Produced in the Basque region, it has won the World Cheese Awards twice in recent years and ‘has a delicate balanced flavour and texture, and will compliment the other cheeses. In France, it is usually served with a black cherry preserve.’
A good punchy cheddar always hits the spot on a cold winter evening and Sue puts Quickes Mature Cheddar on her Christmas cheeseboard. A traditionally made cheese from just outside Exeter in Devon it’s made with pasteurised milk and matured for at least 12 months. Sue says that ‘it has a mellow, rich flavour, which works well with fruit cake and a chutney.’ One for the Camembert-fanciers, Sue adds Tunworth next, a pasteurised cow’s milk cheese from a small dairy in Hampshire. Made along the lines of a French Camembert, Raymond Blanc called it ‘the best Camembert in the world’, which isn’t bad praise really. It’s soft and creamy with hints of mushroom or even cabbage (in a good way, I promise). Finally, Sue’s selection welcomes the goats with Golden Cross, a soft, mould-ripened, unpasteurised cheese from Lewes in East Sussex. Matured for 4 weeks Sue says that ‘it has a delicate lemony flavour and a delightful appearance – it is rolled in a thin layer of ash, and then a natural bloom develops on the rind.’ Perfect for those over-stuffed moments when you crave something a little lighter.
Claire Millner from The Old Cheese Shop in Hartington, Derbyshire, plumped for ‘a glass of good port’ to go with her cheese choices. Representing the blue corner is Peakland Blue, a new pasteurised cow’s milk cheese made and matured in Hartington, which is historically famous for its Stilton production. Claire describes it as ‘similar to a Stilton with a more creamy texture and taste – it’s delicious with a drizzle of honey.’ Thomas Hoe Stevenson Vintage Red Leicester is next, bringing some vibrant colour to the cheeseboard. If you think Red Leicester is all sweaty and shrink-wrapped, this pasteurised cow’s milk cheese, clothbound and matured to approximately six months may well change your mind with its ‘open texture and slightly sweet, nutty, caramelised flavour.’
If caramelised is your thing then Claire’s next choice is also bound to please. Old Winchester is an unusual cheese, made near Salisbury: a cross between a cheddar, a gouda and a parmesan, it’s matured for at least 18 months and as a result takes on a wonderful texture and flavour; almost brittle to the bite, it’s like a great fudge – nutty and salty with caramel notes. I swear you could almost smuggle it into the Christmas selection box. Claire’s choice of goat’s cheese is Ribblesdale Smoked Goat, a pasteurised, creamy, not overly-goaty cheese that’s gently smoked over oak chippings for a delicate ‘snuggling by the fireside’ tang that’s perfect for Christmas. And finally? Claire’s last cheese is a soft, white pasteurised Somerset Camembert. Rich and creamy as all good Camemberts should be, it has ‘a velvety, smooth, white edible rind and an aroma which suggests mushrooms with a hint of green grass.’
For anyone pondering their festive cheese choices, I hope this post gives you some inspiration. But if you’ve already got it all sorted, let me know – what will you be putting on your Perfect Christmas Cheeseboard?
With thanks to: