The question I’m often asked at this time of year is what makes the perfect Christmas cheeseboard. It’s as difficult a question as what makes the perfect Christmas lunch.
If you like - or your family expect - roast turkey and Christmas pudding that’s the perfect lunch for you. If you don’t it may be something quite different.
The theory behind a cheeseboard is to offer cheeses of different textures, flavours and shapes so that it looks attractive, includes a variety of tastes and everyone can find a cheese they like. These are the cheeses and styles that I would go for - leaving out stinky French cheeses which are best left to consenting adults ;-)
1) Stilton. In Britain this is the quintessential Christmas cheese and to be honest it’s hard to better it. The only cheese that arguably has the edge is Stichelton which is made to virtually the same recipe but from raw milk (all Stilton these days is pasteurised) it’s slightly stronger than Stilton - a great blue cheese in my opinion. Try it with sloe gin, a delicious alternative to port
2) A good cheddar has a lot going for it. Most people like cheddar and you can always use it for cooking afterwards. The only issue is how strong it should be - some of the artisanal cheddars like Keen’s can be pretty funky though I do like a good Montgomery.
3) A semi-soft white-rinded cheese such as Brie or Camembert
Another popular choice but one that can cause trouble if you allow it to get overripe - i.e. at the stage where it’s virtually running off the cheeseboard a) because it won’t last very long and b) may well ruin whatever red you’re drinking with it. Try a similar English cheese like a Tunworth, Wigmore or the wickedly creamy Elmhirst from Sharpham Dairy.
4) A goats' cheese
Not everyone likes goats cheese but it’s so versatile and, if you buy a young cheese, not particularly ‘goaty’. You can also use it to spread on crackers for a between blow-outs snack or to make a quick starter salad with some beets and leaves. And it goes with most dry wines (particularly with crisp whites like Sauvignon Blanc)
5) A sheeps cheese
I like a hard sheeps cheese on a cheeseboard, both because it’s the best type of cheese to match with a good red wine and because it means you have something to offer any guests who are dairy intolerant (as you do with goats cheese above). Good examples are Berkswell, aged Pecorino and Manchego (though try and find a matured version - pre-packed Manchego can be bland) Also useful for rustling up some impromptu tapas with a few almonds, olives and slices of chorizo.
There’s nothing wrong with having one impressive cheese rather than a whole board of them. Stilton and cheddar could both perform this role but I quite like to offer something a bit unusual like a Vacherin Mont d’Or (which you can also bake in its box and serve hot like a fondue) or an aged Gouda. Deep orange Mimolette also looks wonderfully festive on a board decorated with apricots, figs and dates.
For more festive inspiration and other cheeseboard ideas see my book Fiona Beckett's Cheese Course.