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OK that’s it; I’m making a plea for everyone to put a little more thought and passion into your cheese boards. You spend hours preparing gastronomic delights, for a formal dinner party or even a buffet-style spread, but when it comes to the chesse board you go ‘safe’ and buy a pre-packed ‘Cheese Selection Box’ – “make it a classy one; I want to make a good impression!” (I’ve done it myself).
Enough is enough. “Cheese” probably contains the widest choice of any food group on the planet, near enough. For everyone to be subjected to less than a dozen, for a lifetime, is verging on tragic (no, really).
Cheddar is great - wonderful, in fact. It’s not surprising we buy more than we do any other, because it’s so versatile, too. Having said that, have you ever thrown a bit of Red Leicester into a cheese sauce, or grated a bit, randomly, onto cheese-on-toast (or pizza), to give added aesthetic interest, as well as flavour – Good quality Red Leicester, from a wheel if you can find it, has a lovely nutty, fruity tone.
Anyway, I digress – I could go on about cheese ad infinitum – back to the ‘simple’ cheeseboard. Here are just six cheeses (I’m a big cheese fan so I may do more in future), for you to make your cheeseboard a topic of conversation.
1 Comté – A divine hard cheese, similar to Gruyere but far more complex and made on the French side of the border, in the Jura Mountains. The summer season produces a slightly more fruity cheese, and becomes nutty when made deeper into winter. I happen to know this is a favourite of Michel Roux Jr.
2 Vacherin Mont d'Or and Vacherin du Haut Doubs – Staying in the Jura, we come to a very special cheese – only sold between September and May – wrapped in a strip of spruce, from which it should never be removed. Raise it to just above room temperature, before putting the whole box on the table. The skin is broken or removed and the oozy cheese spooned out, or simply dip in French bread, like a fondue. It can even be used as the basis for an entire meal, in itself. An incredibly soft, rich cheese, with a hint of sweetness and grassy undertones. It is quite mild, early in the season but, by Christmas, it is strong and pungent. To die for!
3 Crottin de Chavignol – If you are going to include goat’s cheese – and you should – then at least know what it’s called, other than ‘Goat’s Cheese’ (you’ll impress your friends). This is perhaps the most popular French goat’s cheese, often baked and put onto a green salad, but works well on your cheeseboard, too; but I think a young, fresh (white) is best for the board. It’s creamy and nutty, but not sour. Just be wary of similar named imitations; get the AOC version, with the full name ‘Crottin de Chavignol’
4 Celtic Capra - Moving from the Loire, to something a tad more local, this is another goat’s cheese, made in Ireland, which is mellow and herby, giving a variation for goat’s cheese lovers – no, they don’t all taste the same!
5 Double Gloucester – This may seem a strange inclusion, to some, but I see so little of one of the UK’s premier cheeses. Unfortunately, I believe this is due to the almost ubiquitous ‘slab cheese’ found in most supermarkets, whose Double Gloucester can be pretty blah However, if you can find an artisan Double Gloucester, from a wheel, it is an absolute delight. When older and hard, it’s rich, nutty and silky smooth.
6 Oxford Isis – Just to be different (perhaps controversial) I thought I’d include a recent addition to our list of great British cheeses; and attempt to offer an alternative to ‘novelties’ stuffed with lumps of pickled onion (don’t you just love these at Christmas?). Oxford Isis only came into existence this century, and is a full-fat, washed rind cheese; but what makes it distinctive is that it’s sprayed and ripened with honey mead, producing a pungent, distinctive, creamy yet spicy cheese, which is becoming highly regarded amongst those ‘in the know’ (cough). It’s not easy to source, in the local supermarket, but it’s worth looking up ‘The Oxford Cheese Company', too find where you might get hold of some. Introduce your friends to a new experience.
The links I’ve provided are just for reference, as I’m not endorsing the retailers themselves. They may be fine, but do your own research, or see your local supplier.
Obviously, this is just a brief selection, and not meant to be a perfect cheese board, in itself (but some of these cheeses are pretty awesome). You can’t exclude cheddar, and you’ll need a blue cheese - why not Northern Ireland’s very own Ballyblue cheese, for a change, or the popular Young Buck (a personal favorite) - and perhaps some brie, but do try to include a few of these six, when you next compile a cheese feast, and you’ll not regret it. In fact, with a cheeseboard like this, you could skip the rest of the meal!
Have I missed out any of your favourites? Let me know in the comments below.