If there’s one thing you might assume you don’t have to pay much attention to at Christmas, it’s the cheeseboard. Stilton, Cheddar, brie, maybe a goat’s cheese, that’ll do it, you might think. But you won’t be surprised to hear that your cheeseboard could be so much better if you give some careful thought to both the selection and the wine pairings. And who better to steer you through both than Patricia Michelson, the founder of London’s fabled La Fromagerie, with its three branches in London’s Bloomsbury, Highbury and Marylebone.
Michelson has firm opinions on the subject, from the best moment to eat your cheese (not straight after the big meal, or for at least an hour after it) to the order in which you should eat them.
It’s important to enjoy the whole experience, so you need a progression of taste, she argues. ‘Goat’s cheese refreshes and neutralises the palate, its bright acidity building up your tastebuds. Then you want the nutty fruitiness of hard cheese and the mellowness of a bloomy- or washed-rind cheese like a Vacherin. End with a blue, and note how the sharpness of the veins mingles with the richness of the paste and brings the whole taste experience together. Don’t start with the blue because it will kill everything afterwards.
Michelson is generally a fan of white wine with cheese, though she acknowledges that it’s a time of year when most people would drink red. Her own preference is claret or the house wine they serve at the cafe, a Côtes du Frontonnais from southwest France. ‘It’s nice to introduce the younger generation to a really nice Bordeaux like a St-Emilion, though for a Boxing Day cheeseboard a good Beaujolais hits the mark. It’s such a crowd-pleaser.’
In terms of fortified wines, she favours the nuttiness of a Madeira or Marsala over Port, or a Vin de Constance (by Klein Constantia near Cape Town in South Africa), which she feels stands up particularly well to Stilton or Stichelton. ‘I prefer it to Château d’Yquem (Sauternes), which is too fine a wine for blue cheese.’
And a final tip – assuming you live within reach of a decent cheese shop – don’t stock up with too much cheese. ‘Remember, shops only close for a couple of days over the Christmas period.’
Patricia Michelson’s dream cheeseboard
1. Fleur de Chèvre
‘The bright acidity of goat’s cheese refreshes and neutralises the palate, building up your taste buds for the cheeses to follow,’ says Michelson. This unpasteurised cheese from the Poitou-Charentes area is wrapped in a vine leaf and salted with Fleur de Sel from the Ile de Ré, which gives it a fresh, light, lemony flavour – not too aggressively ‘goaty’ for those who are goat’s-cheese averse. It would be delicious with a fresh crunchy apple.
Individual wine match The obvious choice would be a Loire Sauvignon – Sauvignon de Haut-Poitou at the budget end, Sancerre or Pouilly-Fumé if you want to splash out, though a Quincy, Reuilly or Menetou-Salon would also work well, as would Cabernet Franc-based Loire reds.
2. Sparkenhoe Red Leicester
This deep orange-coloured territorial cheese from Leicestershire adds a welcome splash of colour to a festive cheeseboard. (The orange comes from a naturally occurring colour called annatto which is found in the seeds of the achiote tree.) Many Red Leicesters are factory-made, though, so look out for Sparkenhoe’s, which is a traditional farmhouse cheese made with unpasteurised cow’s milk and matured for six months on beech shelves. Mellow and slightly nutty, it’s a great foil for a good red, especially Bordeaux. It goes well with nuts, too.
Individual wine match If you have a top claret you want to show off, Red Leicester is one of the best cheeses to pair with it. It would go well with a reserva or gran reserva Rioja, too, or an amontillado Sherry.
3. Isle of Mull Cheddar
There’s a great back story to this Cheddar from Tobermory on Scotland’s Isle of Mull, which is geographically much more exposed than Cheddar’s traditional home territory of Somerset, southwest England. ‘You can pick out the salty, briny flavour of the seaspray,’ says Michelson. The cows get to eat the mashed barley residue from the Tobermory whisky distillery, which helps give it quite a boozy kick and a stronger, richer flavour than you may be used to, especially the summer cheeses. Good with a sweetish wholemeal biscuit.
Individual wine match One for a fortified wine such as a tawny Port or a Madeira, though you could try a full-bodied, oak-aged Chardonnay. ‘I have often enjoyed the summer cheeses with whisky served with a splash of water,’ adds Michelson.
This pale semi-skimmed cow’s milk cheese from the Treviso province, just outside Venice, has a crust that is dipped and washed in red wine pressings (Ubriaco means ‘drunken’). That gives it a marked tangy, winey flavour that makes it a particularly good match for a red wine, particularly an Italian red. Keep the flavours clean with some crisp, salted Italian-style flatbreads.
Individual wine match Although it comes from the Veneto, which might suggest a Valpolicella Ripasso or even an Amarone, you may want to look elsewhere in Italy for your wine match. It would be a fine pairing for a youngish Piedmontese Barolo or Barbaresco, or even a Brunello di Montalcino from Tuscany.
5. Langres Fermier
Washed with Marc de Champagne eau-de-vie, this washed-rind pasteurised cow’s cheese from Fromagerie Remillet, with its distinctive pale orange rind, is not as strong and pungent as it might appear – the interior is creamy, even fudgy. You could pour a little white wine, Champagne or eau-de-vie into the volcanic-style crater at the top for extra flavour. It’s perfect with a baguette.
Individual wine match Given the region it comes from, Champagne would be the perfect match, especially if you’ve splashed a little Champagne on the cheese. (Rosé Champagne goes with younger cheeses, advises Michelson.) An Alsace Pinot Gris or Gewurztraminer would work well, too, or if you prefer a red you could go for a southern Rhône Gigondas.
According to the regulations, Stilton has to be made with pasteurised milk, but this unpasteurised version from the Welbeck estate in Nottingham comes from exactly the same area and is Stilton in all but name. The raw milk and slightly slower production process results in a creamily textured cheese and some intensely flavoured blue veining, which gives it a satisfyingly deep, savoury character that’s perfect with walnuts and oatcakes.
Individual wine match The recipe may be different but it’s still in essence a Stilton, so think in terms of the usual suspects. Vintage Port, a generous red (Amarone again or maybe a Douro red) or a rich, sweet wine such as a Hungarian Tokaji or a Passito di Pantelleria from Sicily. Michelson also recommends a Vin de Constance
Or choose one cheese…
An alternative to laying out a full cheeseboard would be to serve an individual, show-stopping ‘hero’ cheese: a perfect example of its kind. ‘That’s not a bad option to go for over Christmas when everyone is eating a lot,’ says Michelson. ‘You can always bring out a single cheese just to finish off your wine.’ The obvious choice would be a Vacherin Mont d’Or, which can be served either at room temperature or – particularly decadently – baked so it’s like a fondue. The best match for that, she holds, is a Chignin from Savoie or Savagnin from the Jura in eastern France, or vintage Champagne. Other possibilities would be a truffled Brie, a Beaufort (‘a favourite for New Year’s Eve’), or a Comté which, as Michelson rightly says, ‘everyone loves, from children to adults’. ‘Comté and Vacherin make a good mini cheeseboard,’ she continues, ‘and I’d drink white wine with both.’
Cheese housekeeping tips
Clearly you want to buy your cheese in optimum condition, but you’ll also want to keep it that way, and Michelson has some unusual advice which involves simply investing in a few cheap plastic boxes.
Basically you need to keep each style of cheese separately, so you need a box for goat’s cheeses, one for soft cheeses, another for blue cheeses and so on. Keep the hard cheeses separately and let the stinkies have their own box, too. Line each box with dampened paper towel or a J-Cloth (or equivalent). Wrap each cheese in waxed or greaseproof paper, label them, then pop them into their box and clip on the lid.
Blue cheeses like to be kept cold, so keep them in the coldest part of the fridge, or outside if you have an unheated space like a bike shed. Hard cheeses should be in the warmest part of the fridge, and the others wherever you can find space. Remove the cheeses an hour before you use them, unwrap them and arrange them on your board, covered with a damp tea towel.
If there’s any cheese left over, wrap it with fresh waxed paper not plastic film. Soft cheeses will keep for a week, hard cheeses for quite a bit longer. If a bloom appears on the cheese just scrape it off with the back of a knife.