Dare I say it? In just one month, it’ll all be over. The gifts will have been given, the Christmas Day walk will have been walked (come rain or shine) and we’ll all be sitting back with that comfortable sense of repleteness that follows the long festivities
Of course, that means there’s just a few weeks left to get everything ready…
As a child, I remember my parents becoming increasingly irate and stressed as Christmas approached. Looking back, I can understand now the pressure they were under, the drive to make everything perfect with three young children getting underfoot, hunting for presents (we never found them – our mum was a teacher, and revealed, years later, that she would hide them in her classroom cupboard!)
These days, we’ve all learned to be a bit kinder to ourselves. We’ll be having mexican for Christmas dinner this year – easy to prepare ahead, so Christmas Day can be spent enjoying each others company, instead of slaving over a prep sheet and agonising about getting the turkey cooked and rested in time for the roasties to be crunchy on the outside but fluffy on the in and the pigs-in-blankets to be golden and the gravy to be thick – but not too thick – and the sprouts to be just right and… You know the feeling.
Of course, for me, there’s one bit of Christmas Day that has become more lavish over the years, rather than less. Growing up, the Christmas Day Cheeseboard was a wedge of cheddar, a hunk of rather dry Stilton and a slice of hard brie. Small wonder then, that I never discovered the ‘joy of cheese’ until years later, when I was introduced to the staggering – and ever increasing – variety of the golden stuff.
The Christmas Day Cheeseboard has become something of a big deal these days, as lavish a spread as the main meal. If (like me) you plan your cheeseboard well in advance, think about ordering your cheese – it’s one less thing to think about in those last few days if all you have to do is pick it up, rather than waiting for it to be cut and wrapped for you. (You can download an order form here or pick one up from me in the van, or you can order online if we’re too far away!)
With so much to choose from, it can be hard to decide what to put on your cheeseboard. This time last year, I wrote a bit about how to choose your cheeses, so I won’t repeat myself. Instead, here’s a few thoughts about how to match your cheeses to the perfect accompaniments.
Classically, we’ve been taught to pair wine with cheese. In fact, it’s often the worst thing to do – the cheese coats your mouth so you can’t taste the more subtle flavours of the wine, while the dry tannins of the wine clash with the sweeter, lactic flavours of the cheese.
There are exceptions, of course – if you’re serving up bubbly (be it champagne, prosecco or some of the marvelous english champagne-styles) then a lush but fresh-tasting triple cream cheese is perfection itself. My favourite at the moment is Chaource – a marvellous little cheese from the Champagne-Ardennes region that is uncutously soft just under the bloomy rind while retaining that unique crumbly-but-melting texture inthe middle.
Fortified wines work better with cheese – if you’re lucky enough to be able to find a well aged sherry, you’ll find the deep, raisin-y notes stand up beautifully to the more powerfully sweet/sharp flavours of a viejo Manchego or aged Pecorino. But while port is the traditional accompaniment to Stilton, I always prefer to pair sloe or damson gin with it – blue cheese loves stone fruits, after all, and it can be less cloyingly sweet than some ports.
If you’re putting cheddar or a british territorial cheese (Caerphilly, Wensleydale, Lancashire etc) on your board, think about a smooth cider liquer. Ice cider is produced by freezing barrels of cider – the water in the drink freezes first and can be removed, leaving a concentrated, intensely flavoured drink. An opposing method uses a slow simmering to achieve the same result – pyro-concentrated cider. Both are sweet but clean and fruity, and a more natural match to our traditional cheeses.
Chutneys, Pickles and more
Perhaps the fastest growing sector of accompaniments is the ‘preserves.’ Fruit or vegetable based, they need to be carefully balanced between the sweet and vinergary-sharp to work well with cheese. Chances are, most of us have a shelf full of homemade chutneys. These will be great, as they’ll be made to suit your own palate, but think about something a little more ‘out there’ to go with them. A spicy, fragrant pickle can stand up to the bigger flavoured mountain cheeses that could overwhelm an apple or green tomato chutney, and if you’ve got a board full of oozing, rich cheeses, a sharp, crunchy pickled onion, apple or gherkin is a welcome contrast.
Fruit ‘cheeses’ have made a welcome comeback over the last few years. A sort of thick but slightly soft jelly, they’re intensely flavoured and often packed with fruit pulp, making them slightly coarse. The unusual texture is a great addition to a cheeseboard, and the range of flavours now make it easy to find something that will work with most cheeses – quince is a traditional accompaniment to manchego, but works well with any strong, aged cheese. I also stock damson and fig – both are great with soft cheese, while damson is particularly good with blues and fig with goats or ewes.
Fruit ‘slices’ – no, not the sugar-encrusted jelly slices that bear as much resemblance to fruit as Susie does to a formula 1 car. These slices are fruit pressed with nuts into loaves and sliced. Typically based on fig, date or apricot, they’re quite sweet, but a thin slice/small chunk (some are easier to break than slice) works well with pretty much any cheese, and they’re still unusual enough to intrigue the most jaded palates.
There’s a bewildering array of biscuits for cheese out there, but they broadly break down into two categories: plain biscuits and biscuits with stuff in. Try and have a bit of each – for some people, the biscuit is there as a vessel for the cheese and nothing more. Plain biscuits are best for this, with gentle flavours that will subtly complement the cheese without confusing or detracting from it.
For others, who wouldn’t dream of having their cheese on anything at all, a flavoured biscuit is a welcome texture on a cheeseboard. A crunchy slice, packed with fruit, nuts and seeds sits well beside the cheese, being interesting enough to enjoy on it’s own – although most do benefit from a dollop of a rich, luxurious soft cheese!
These days, gluten free biscuits are widely available too, and are a far cry from the dry, powdery slabs that used to be the only alternative. So now, no one has to miss out!