Cheeseboards may not be the main event at Christmas, but without a well-chosen board of fromages sitting on the kitchen counter at all times, the season’s between-meal sweet treats of reindeer cookies, snickedoodles and gingerbread men can quickly overwhelm the palate into a sugar-induced coma.
Cheeses have a comforting ability to balance out the disproportionate patterns of Holiday eating, and nibbling on a piece of stilton after polishing off the last of the rich yuletide cake has a nice, calming effect on the mind and stomach until the fresh batch of mini cinnamon rolls are finally out of the oven.
Putting together a perfect cheeseboard is an art. If you’re going to serve a slab of Tilamook cheddar and a brick of blue to go with a box of Triscuits, you’ll be doing Christmas all wrong. The selection of cheeses is vital to the board structure, but you don’t have to be a cheese nerd who worries about `bloomy’, `grassy’ and `lactic’ to pull yours off with a cheesemonger’s panache.
Follow these good cheese-layout principles and you’ll wonder how you ever survived Christmas all these years without the sensory pleasure of this festive, artisanal luxury.
NUMBER OF CHEESES: HOW MANY WILL BE ENOUGH
It’s tempting to go overboard with the cheese selection and accommodate 10-15 varieties in bits and pieces. But most cheese experts assess your need to be within the manageable range of 3 to 5, served in nice, big portions. The more the variety, the harder the cheeses become to manage because they start drying out at their own pace, killing the harmony of flavors you want to achieve. Even Emmanuel Landré, who picks cheeses for Le Gavroche – the swish French restaurant in London’s Upper Brook Street with the world’s most famous Cheese Trolley (50 items strong) — will do just 4 or 5 varieties if he is entertaining at home.
VARIETY OF CHEESES: CHEDDAR… AND?
Go with a hard, a soft, a blue and a washed-rind (if you’re brave), and you’ve got a great mix. Ideally, there will be something on the board that’s made with cow’s cheese, sheep’s cheese and goat’s cheese.
• Hard Cheese: Cheddar is a popular choice of hard cheese during Christmas, but do stay away from the bland, good-enough-for-a-sandwich variety. Created during World War II when food was scarce and a precious slab of cheese had to last a very long time, cheddar still remains the workhorse of the fromagerie, and as such, should be selected carefully for something as sublime as a Christmas cheeseboard.
• Blue Cheese: The traditional choice is Stilton. A farmhouse English cheese made by hand from raw milk, this `name-protected’ variety has to be selected very wisely. In many food stores, for example, Stilton is kept frozen, which means it fails to develop the signature creamy texture, minerality and bite. Try the Stichelton this year — a masterpiece attempt at making an American version of English Stilton. You’ll not be sorry.
• Soft Cheese: Nothing balances out the alpha personalities of hard and blue on the cheeseboard, like a soft, bloomy Brie. Mild and versatile, Brie is much more of a crowd-pleaser than the stronger Camembert, and should be paired with tart, fruity preserves to bring out its creaminess. Because of FDA regulations, you’re unlikely to get a good raw-milk variety in the US, but you will high-quality French imports like Brie Fermier Jouvence and Brie de Meaux (pasteurized version, of course). The Traditional Brie made by the Marin French Cheese Company here in USA is pretty competent too.
• Washed-Rind Cheese: The cheese gets its name from the frequent rinsing it get with brine or alcohol as it matures, to encourage the growth of flavor-making bacteria. A good washed-rind should appear and feel moist to the touch without being too sticky. Cracks on the reddish-orange rind surface means the cheese is ripe and should be consumed quickly.
Some good, hard washed-rinds would be Gruyère, Comté and Raclette. Softs would include Munster, Reblochon and Taleggio. Another one, from the Cato Corner Farm in Connecticut we’ve heard rave reviews about is the Hooligan.
Be warned though, if you’re unfamiliar with this one. Include a washed-rind on the board only if you’re entertaining some proven connoisseurs of cheese because washed-rind has a gut-coilingly bad stink. The pungent `aroma’ is in direct contrast to the sweet, earthy flavor locked inside, but washed-rind at Christmas is only for those brave few who’re willing to put up with a fetid malodor overpowering sweet, seasonal scents of mulled wine, spiced apple, fresh baking and Christmas tree.