How to create the perfect Christmas cheeseboard

Those of you who've looked up my recommendations on cheese before will have picked up that I'm not a big fan of large cheeseboards. Especially with red wine. But at Christmas people tend to expect them so how do you create as harmonious as match as possible?

The first tip I’d give is to avoid extremes of flavour. Many cheeselovers might regard that as a bit of a cop out but if you value your wine it’s worth avoiding very mature Camemberts and Bries that have acquired ammoniac flavours, strong stinky French cheeses such as Epoisses and ultra-strong blues such as Roquefort and extra mature Stilton.

That doesn’t mean you can’t introduce variety and interest to your cheeseboard. There are many modern cheeses that are much more sympathetic to red wine than some traditional cheeses. In the tasting I conducted for Decanter last year we came up with a perfect Christmas cheeseboard of Montgomery Cheddar, Barkham Blue (a creamier, more mellow cheese than Stilton) and Crockhamdale, a hard sheeps’milk cheese.

If there’s a particular cheese that you love such as a Brie or a Vacherin there’s no harm in including it - or, even better, serving it on its own - but it’s worth buying not more than a couple of days before you intend to eat it and tending it carefully to ensure that it doesn’t get out of condition. The cheese experts I’ve talked to over the years all say that you shouldn’t get to a stage where cheeses are literally oozing over the cheeseboard. If you serve them at room temperature rather than straight from the fridge you won’t find that they’re lacking in flavour.

You can also help your wine by the accompaniments you pick. A flavoursome walnut or sourdough bread, a fruit paste, jelly or compote and/or a selection of dried fruits and nuts not only have the advantage of being decorative but also offset the bitter notes that some cheeses have much better than plain white bread or crackers or fresh grapes. Some good quality unsalted butter can also help.

The kind of reds that work for turkey are, fortunately, by and large those that work pretty well for cheese - ripe and fruity without obtrusive tannins. A good Merlot, Pinot Noir or Shiraz with plenty of ripe berry fruit. Even better in my book are wines that have acquired some dried fruit flavours of their own - a mature Rioja for example - or which have an element of porty sweetness like an Amarone or a Zinfandel. Port itself is obviously a classic match, especially with blues such as Stilton but you could try other strong sweet wines like a Maury, Banyuls or Rivesaltes or a sweet Madeira for a change. Just switch to them after the main course.

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