18 December 2020
The author of A Cheesemonger’s History of the British Isles picks his favourite cheeses for the Christmas table.
Along with the stupefyingly large meal, the crackers, silly hats and terrible jokes, the cheeseboard is a great place to celebrate the traditions of a British Christmas. I would go with a selection of eminently traditional cheeses like Cheddar – the quintessential British cheese, Stilton – the other quintessential British cheese, and Wensleydale, which you will need to go with your Christmas cake. A good cheeseboard needs a decent range of flavours and textures, so I would add to this a Camembert, because everyone needs something luxuriantly gooey and stinky on their cheeseboard. Perhaps this board lacks a little oomph, so for the more jaded palate I would also pick a fulsome barnyardy washed-rind.
It’s all very well of course to say ‘Cheddar’ or ‘Stilton’, but there are a great range to choose from, and while maintaining our reverence towards the traditions of Christmas, there’s no reason not to ring the changes – in a limited and specific way of course. With those thoughts in mind, here is my perfect Christmas Cheeseboard, with suggestions and substitutions.
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The West Country is the home of Cheddar, so for a really traditional board, you could go with one of the great Somerset Cheddars – Montgomery’s, Keens, Westcombe or Pitchfork, or the Devonian Quickes.
Ranging further afield there is Hafod, from West Wales, a gentle, soft buttery cheese, or Isle of Mull with notes of iodine, peat and a tang of smoke.
Less traditional is the richly complex Lincolnshire Poacher, a Cheddar/Gruyère hybrid combining the beefy savoury flavour of the former with the sweet nuttiness of the latter.
I favour creaminess, complexity and balance in a Stilton – with a restrained amount of blueing. Colston Basset, hand ladled for extra creaminess is my personal favourite, but Cropwell Bishop, Hartington’s, Tuxford and Tebbut and Websters all have a noble pedigree, and it’s worth trying them all until you find yours.
For an unpasteurised alternative there is the equally complex and creamy Stichelton with its notes of bubblegum, malted milk and Marmite, Leicestershire’s Sparkenhoe Blue – firm and fudgey, or the wilder Northern Irish Young Buck.
This gentle, mild slightly crumbly cows’ milk cheese is part of a family unique to Britain – the Territorials – which includes Red Leicester, Double and Single Gloucester, Cheshire, Lancashire and Caerphilly. There are many producers to choose from, some of my favourites in order are, Sparkenhoe, Martell’s, Crump’s and Smart’s; Appleby’s and Bourne’s, Kirkhams; Trethowans and Ducketts – what a mouthful!
The role of the Territorials – and this is something our friends in the North have taught us – is to be had with Christmas cake, its sweet stickiness and the savoury salty tang of the cheese intertwine in an enlivening yet comforting way. If you are in Yorkshire, the cheese would have to be Wensleydale. Hawes’ is the most widely known, with its simple fresh flavour, but there has been a recent revival of more traditional styles often with a mould rind, like Whin Yeats (AKA Fellstone), Stonebeck and Richard III. If you happen to be in Lancashire then it’s Kirkhams Lancashire of course, and if you are lucky you might find a piece of Mrs Kirkham’s Christmas Cake to go with it.
Fromagerie Reaux’s camembert de Normandie would be a very traditional choice, but whichever producer you favour, do look for the ugly fruit of the Camembert family, a good one ought to have a rumpled wrinkly surface with tawny pinkish flecks setting off the snowy white of its mould rind.
Closer to home there is Tunworth (pictured), made in Hampshire, with all the gooiness, rumpled rind and creamy cabbagey flavour you desire. Raymond Blanc, who knows a thing or two about French cheese, says it’s the best Camembert in the world. Apparently, he’s not allowed back into France until he says sorry.
Washed in brine, and often after that in some sort of booze, these cheeses are a little more contentious, since the washing creates a pink sticky rind with pungent aromas of the farm yard along with meaty smokey flavours. Epoisses washed in Marc de Bourgogne, is pretty hefty, Langres, washed in Marc de Champagne is gentler.
Back home there is the world famous Stinking Bishop, whose bark is way more friendly than its bite, Edmund Tew mild, creamy with a hint of fresh yeast, or the rumbustious Renegade Monk, a novel hybrid style combining washed-rind with blue.
A big part of Christmas indulgence is the boozing of course, and it is well to pay some attention to your cheese and booze pairings. Personally I am not a big fan of red wine and cheese, I find the tannin in many reds reacts badly with the creamy texture and can lead to bitterness. If you must have a red, have a lighter one like a youngish Pinot Noir or even a Beaujolais-Villages. Off-dry whites are the most versatile partner for cheese, so late bottled Rieslings, Pino Blanc and Gris, perhaps even a Gewürztraminer will all be fun. Champagne or any decent toasty sparkling wine is wonderful with a Camembert style, creating a decadent fizzy mousse in the mouth. Port is of course traditional, although I find rubies a little overwhelming for cheese. Try a white port if you can find one, they seem to get on well with cheese. Beer and cheese is a match worthy of more exploration and a rich dark porter or a warming brown ale make comforting partners to a range of British traditionals.
Plain crackers or sourdough bread make good accompaniments and I have nothing against pickles or chutneys. Rosebud Preserves to a lovely range and Branstons is a stalwart.
An actual independent cheesemonger, or a good deli is your best bet for really good cheese. Many of these are selling online in these interesting times, which vastly increases your choices. I have a list of some favourites on my website Cheese Tasting Co. For a supermarket, Waitrose would be my starting point as they often have a dedicated cheese counter, and have some of the cheeses I have mentioned on their shelves. Tesco’s Finest range or the equivalent at any other supermarket are perfectly fine.
Other than that, remember to take your cheese out of the fridge at least half an our before you want to eat it so that the flavours have had some time to wake up. Finally, I would suggest that you have your cheese before pudding, so that there’s still room to have plenty.
Happy Christmas, Happy New Year and Happy Cheesing!
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