The Perfect Cheeseboard: Myth or Reality?
Come join me on my quest to find the perfect cheeseboard. Is it even possible?
It’s something I’ve long thought about. What is the perfect cheeseboard? Should there be raw milk cheese, blue cheese, smoked cheese, goats cheese, head cheese? And does the perfect cheeseboard come with brown bread, sourdough, crackers, brioche, biscuits? Will you serve it with chutneys or jams? Or fruits and nuts?
I’ve been scratching my head over this for many many years. Every time I have people over for food, my mind wanders to the cheese board. Have I ever gotten it right? I experience intense palpitations as I watch people pick and choose from the board. Was the blue too strong? The talleggio too runny? Why do some cheeses seem to be so popular compared to others? And what is it about Brie? That one I never got.
So this year, instead of getting in a funk about cheese again (I know, I know, I’m a wron’un), I decided to go and talk to those in the know. I chatted to some of our finest cheese mongers and asked them about the perfect cheeseboard. I’m looking at you Franck from Sheridans and also at you Barra from Tesco. I couldn’t forget my beloved Fallon & Byrne and Astrid, the Cheese Manager. I chatted with my friend June of Food Odyssey . I chatted with Jenny Rose Clarke, who owns the award winning Toonsbridge Dairy. I chatted with all kinds of wonderful cheese lovers from the Irish Food Bloggers group on Facebook and also from my happy place, which you can join if you just want to see endless food porn.
When I asked them to tell me about the first cheese they loved:
June said: “I absolutely adore cheddar, and have done for as long as I can remember. I grew up in Wexford and a neighbour worked for the creamery. He would bring us a huge block of Wexford cheddar every few weeks. It was used for school lunches and that ultimate of comfort foods – hot cheese on toast! For fancy occasions it was cut into chunks and skewered with a grape or olive, maybe with all the sticks pushed into half an orange to create a hedgehog!”
From Franck, our contrary cheese loving poet: “Well, there is Camembert of course, not the piece of plaster board we had during the week, but the one my Mum bought for Sunday. Raw milk, hand made, full of flavours, I still crave it in a weird way. And for a Breton guy, it is a pretty hard thing to admit!!! But I have a special memory, the first day I tried blue cheese, it was Roquefort, it was quite funny, as I was a fussy little brat; my Dad even explained to me the molds, the penicillium… In typical contrary style, I loved it. I still eat it of course ( eat them), I make a mean Roquefort sauce, once for steaks, now more for roasted root vegetables, as a dip…”
From Jenny Rose: “While growing up, the only cheese I ate was goat’s cheese because most of my family was dairy intolerant. I do still appreciate goat’s cheese, but as you can imagine, my taste in cheese has since expanded.”
When I talked to Barra McFeely about his Christmas cheeseboard, wine and what three cheeses he would take on a desert island:
Barra joined Tesco in early 2011 and prior to this worked with the retail sectors on their cheese and deli products. Barra also ran his own successful farmhouse cheese business, supplying Ireland, the UK, Belgium and Austria. His cheese career also took him to South America, Mongolia and Tibet, where he learned how to make over 40 cheese varieties, including cheeses from Yak’s milk.
I asked him to tell us about his ideal Christmas cheese platter and why he feels the cheeses complement each other?
Barra said: “My ideal Christmas platter consists of a strong blue cheese (e.g Crozier Blue), a Vintage Cheddar (e.g Tesco Vintage Cheddar), a raw milk soft cheese (e.g finest Brie de Meaux), an aromatic washed rind cheese (e.g. Milleens) and a hard sheep’s milk cheese (e.g. Cais na Tire sheeps milk cheese). They complement each other as they represent a good representation of the most flavoursome cheeses available with no overlap in taste profiles.”
When I asked him about his wine recommendation for this cheese selection, he said:
” Wine to accompany cheese is very much a personal choice. The cheeses above are all strong flavoured, so I would recommend a robust red wine such as a Merlot, Bordeaux, or a Rioja.”
And finally when I asked him about his top three cheese for a spell on a desert island, he answered:
“A year’s supply of Cais na Tire hard sheep’s milk cheese, Roquefort, and Vintage Dubliner along with a commensurate ration of wine please”
And when I asked them all about the perfect cheeseboard for Chrismas, the answers came fast and strong.
Franck: “I am not going to lie to you, Christmas is going to be a very simple affair, and therefore so will be the cheese board; I will have St Tola “Ash” goat’s cheese from Clare, and Fourme d’Ambert blue from Auvergne in France; Milleens is insanely excellent at the moment, so I might “get me some of that too”. Cravero’s Parmigiano Reggiano, and 3 years old Dutch Gouda for the cooking part.”
Jenny Rose: “Toon’s Bridge Cacio Cavallo, Fior di Latte, Ricotta and Straw Smoked Scamorza are essentials. On festive occasions we always include DOP Gorgonzola and Comté, which are also available at our Real Olive Company stalls over the Christmas period.”
Astrid from Fallon and Byrne recommended: “Moliterno al Tartufo, a hard italian sheep’s cheese. This Pecorino is matured for about a year before seams of italian summer truffle are added, giving an intense earthy flavour. Lovely with a glass of Barolo. Occelli Frutta di Grappa, made from a blend of sheep’s and cow’s milk. Left to age for a minimum of 12 months, it is then enriched with the addition of Grappa di Moscato and studded with a decorative mix of fruits. All making for a cheese that is fabulously festive-looking, and a visual and flavour show-stopper. Brie de Meaux aux Truffes, this will turn your Christmas cheeseboard into something utterly luxurious with this simply decadent cheese. With a rich, earthy layer of truffle sandwiched between soft, creamy raw milk Brie – a little goes a long way! Stilton, – ours is Colston Bassett – is the KING of blue cheeses. Add a log fire and a bottle of port for pure, wintry heaven. Blu ’61, this Italian soft blue cheese is made using pasteurized cow’s milk and aged over three months during which the wheels are matured in local Raboso Passito IGT wine and cranberries. Soft and creamy, layered with berries on top, Blu ’61 will look striking on your festive cheeseboard.
June: “I try to have a mix of flavours and textures on my cheeseboard. I love a ripe, runny soft cheese like St. Killian (also from Wexford) or Camembert. I like softer blues like Roquefort or St. Agur as opposed to hard Stilton or Cashel Blue. The taste is milder and they’re easier to spread on a cracker. I like to have one goat’s cheese, usually something soft like Boilie, from Tyrone, and a smoked cheese, like Gubeen. If I’m going all out I might do a baked cheese, either a Mont D’or (if in season) or a Camembert. I like to serve port and grapes with cheese, with a selection of crackers. For baked cheese I would serve crusty baguette for luxurious dipping!
For Christmas, I hope to have a real (AOP) Camembert and Roquefort, a cheddar and a semi-soft goat’s cheese, plus grapes and my own homemade Rosemary, Salt & Pepper biscuits. I have a jar of homemade rhubarb jam to go on the side.”
From the Proper Food Facebook groups, various mentions were made of Old Groendal , Morbier , Epoisse De Bourgogne, Blu Di Buffala, Crozier Blue, St Andre, Montagnolo, Livarot and my favourite Irish cheese Ardrahan. A few of my go to cheeses weren’t on the list but as for once I’m talking about other people’s tastes, I shall keep these to myself unless you ask.
Finally when I asked what to serve with the perfect cheeseboard, I knew I’d gone to the right people.
Franck: “For me, it is a good sourdough or a baguette, blues on rye or a good walnut and raisin bread are also a must. Crackers and Chutneys were absent of the first 20 years of my life, so it doesn’t mean as much to me I guess. Saying that, I tried some Camembert with homemade marmalade the other day and something happened, I swear!”
Jenny Rose: “We have some fantastic local producers in Macroom who make delicious quince paste and redcurrant jelly. These are an absolute must have for us. Lismore Food Company also do some delicious savoury biscuits. Our Real Olive Company stalls stock a great range of olives, pastes, dried fruits and preserves, so there’s no shortage of accompaniments on our Christmas cheeseboard!”
June: “Grapes, a selection of thin crackers or fresh sourdough, rhubarb or gooseberry jam. I often have olives, but not necessarily with cheese – too much salt!”
So there you have it folks, the perfect cheeseboard was in your heart all along. And “that” is the miracle of a cheesy Christmas.
So be well, don’t stress and eat cheese my friends.
PS: if you are stuck for ideas for Christmas (or not just for Christmas) here is a guide I wrote of Christmas Gifts for Cheese Lovers