15 of our food editor’s top picks for your festive cheeseboard
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Ooh I ruddy love cheese. Whether presented as a molten, gooey blanket draped lovingly across a piece of toast, strung from a steaming hot slice of pizza, or presented on a piece of slate or wood with a slivers of fresh fruit – it's all good. And it’s a sweet, sweet bit of alchemy. Looking at milk, who could imagine such a simple, natural, raw product could produce upwards of 2,000 (and counting) variations?
I’m often asked at this time of year ‘what should I put on my cheeseboard for Christmas?’
Now this is a tricky one, because I am not known for holding back when it comes to fromages. Even I, who will in this very article urge you to stick to three (oh go on then, four) types, couldn’t resist splurging shamelessly on my own festive cheese buying trip recently. I distinctly remember, despite my already hefty list, swivelling on heel and shouting across the deli, “Julie...I er, I WILL have a piece of Vacherin as well...why not...it’s Christmas?”
Here is a list of just 15 of my picks from Britain and Europe (largely France), and it’s by no means exhaustive. I’ve given suggestions for accompaniments, including wines and local chutneys, and a list of independent shops in the region that I heartily recommend. Bon appetit!
1, Baron Bigod
In summer the Montbeliarde cows that produce the milk for this bloomy-rinded, mushroomy, earthy brie-type cheese are out grazing on the fat of the land, in fields just outside Bungay. If you swing by the shed farm shop ‘very well stocked’ to use the vending machines (filled with cheese, milk, bread, cakes etc) you may well spot them going about their day. You must serve this at room temperature to allow it to sag/give a little in the middle, opening up its flavour.
Serve with: Toasted walnuts or almonds, truffle honey, ripe slices of pear.
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Wine choice: Pinot Noir, Riesling, Chardonnay
2. Smoked Northumberland
You can keep your pappy, slimy, ‘fake’ smoked cheeses, blended with artificial flavouring. Kick them to the curb and go for the real deal. This is my very favourite smoked variety – and it’s an award-winner to boot. The original Northumberland cheese, made for nearly 40 years in the southern part of the county, has hot water added to the curds to lend a sweeter flavour to the finished product. This is then cold smoked over oak for 12 hours and matured for three months. It’s subtle, rich and sensational.
Serve with: Candi’s Chutney’s Bramley Apple and Norfolk Ale Chutney, cold, crunchy apples
Wine choice: Shiraz or Syrah, Malbec
3, Garlic Yarg
Made in Cornwall by Lynher Dairies, I first ate this crumbly-textured, fresh, slightly lemony cheese 25 years ago on a holiday in Guernsey, where it wowed with its curious jacket of dried nettle. My family love the allium-scented version, wrapped in wild garlic leaves. It’s a subtle hint, but beautiful.
Serve with: Sweet pickled cucumbers, olives, preserved lemon
Wine Choice: Chenin Blanc, Chablis
4. Bob’s Knob
There was a phase when these charming green and red waxed pyramids of Lancashire cheese from Leagram Organic Dairy were renamed Volcanoes to avoid, ahem, embarrassment.
Thankfully the PC police seem to have been averted because I’ve spied it on sale again with its glorious original name. This is strong, roof-of-the-mouth-burning stuff that’ll get under your skin and put hairs on your chest. I love it.
Serve with: Apples, pears, white grapes, apricot relish, Candi’s Chutney’s Non Mango Mango Chutney
Wine choice: Cabernet Sauvignon, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Noir
5. Camembert au Calvados
Camembert is one of France’s oldest cheeses, dating back at least to 1035. I have quite a penchant for Neufchatel, a type often rolled out around Valentine’s Day - largely because I am enamoured by the legend that its heart-shaped form was crafted by French farm girls who fell in love with English soldiers posted in Normandy in the Hundred Year War.
Anyway, I digress. You may have had camembert, or its cousin Coulommiers (made just outside Paris) but you haven’t tried anything until you’ve propped this on your cheeseboard. Once aged, the cheese has its rind removed, is dipped in Calvados and cider, rolled in crumbs, and finally laid to rest in a box. You’ve got thick, spreadable paste, and an utterly fruity, very spicy finish with a real bite, often redolent of blue cheese.
Serve with: Monty’s Heritage Apple Chutney, quince jelly
Wine choice: Sparkling wine, a tot of calvados, farmhouse cider
6. Cashel Blue
If we skip slightly across the pond to Beechmount Farm in Tipperary we get to this creamy, salty, dark veined cheese, made with love by the Grub family. It is one of Europe’s superior blues in my opinion.
Serve with: Honey, muscat grapes, sultanas
Wine choice: Tokaji, Californian Elysium, Chardonnay, Flint Vineyard’s Charmat
7. Montgomery Cheddar
The Montgomery family have made this cracker of a Cheddar in the time-honoured fashion for over 120 years, using milk from cows that graze on the pastures of north and south Cadbury in Somerset. It’s not shy, this one. Beneath the tree-bark, almost leathery rind is a firm, nutty, fruity, bold cheese, sometimes run through with a ribbon of mould from the ripening process (over 12 to 18 months).
Serve with: Grapes, apple, Monty’s Sticky Date and Apricot Chutney, The Tealady’s Quince Jelly
Wine choice: Late harvest Italian Vendemmia Tardiva, Pacherenc du Vic Bilh from Gascony, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris
At room temperature, this British camembert-style cheese from Hampshire will win the heart of any cheese-lover, collapsing under its wrinkled rind into a savoury, buttery, slightly nutty joy. As good, if not better, than what you’ll get in France.
Serve with: Honey, figs, dates
Wine choice: Stick with the terroir and go for a bottle of Hampshire fizz – I adore Coate and Sealey’s Brut Reserve. St Emilion or Carmanere would also work, as would a sparkling cider
Cute as a button, these pale orange, dainty, wrinkled skin cheeses hail from France’s Champagne-Ardenne region. They get quite pongy in the fridge thanks to a wash in Marc de Bourgogne brandy...oh but when you sink your teeth into a slice. It’s silky, beautifully rich, and has a slightly, almost Champagne-like, essence.
Serve with: A few grapes if you like – I don’t think it needs much help
Wine choice: Champagne of course. Some like to pour fizz, brandy or even kirsch into the concave top
There has been mutiny at home over the stench caused by this cheese – so much so I am seriously considering getting a mini ‘cheese fridge’ to sling in the garage. Yes. It’s offensive – as most brine-washed cheeses are. This Normandy number is coloured with annatto, matured in warm cellars for a couple of months, and then wrapped in raffia - which led to its nickname, The Colonel.
Much like Langres, this has a thick paste. Younger cheeses will be a little lemony and full-flavoured. Wait longer and it becomes almost meaty with a full bite of salt.
Serve with: Apples and grapes
Wine choice: A tot of apple brandy or cider, sparkling wine, Pinot Noir
11. Gorgonzola Piccante
Happenstance created this cheese. As cows moved across Piedmont and Lombardy to graze, Gorgonzola became a common resting point – and naturally local farmers wanted to make the most of the gift on their doorsteps. Today the cheese can only be made in these areas, and while the dolce version is more commonly used, I highly recommend seeking out the piccante variety for its zippy, tangy, full flavour.
Serve with: Dried fruits
Wine choice: Moscato d’Asti, Vin Santo
12. Mrs Temple’s Wells Alpine
Made to Catherine Temple’s recipe in Wighton, Norfolk, with milk from Swiss Browns, this cheese is a mild, but full-tasting stunner that I first tried many years ago at a friend’s wedding.
It displays all the glorious characteristics of an Alpine cheese, being mid-firm, slighty sweet, nutty and a touch grassy. It makes the ultimate cheese on toast, and will melt perfectly into a fondue.
Serve with: Keep it very simple to allow this cheese to shine
Wine choice: Sparkling cider, Chenin Blanc, Viognier
A unique-tasting cheese from France’s Savoie region, in the shadow of the Alps. It’s cast in beechwood moulds, pressed for 24 hours, brined, then stored on spruce wood shelves. But the process isn’t finished yet. Oh no no. The cheese is salted on one side each morning, turned over and massaged every afternoon. A smear of morge (a mix of brine, whey, cheese scraps depending on the cheesemaker) an aging of six months, and this baby is ready. It’s smooth, very very slightly pungent, and easily melted. There’s nothing quite like it.
Serve with: A few nuts, dried fruit
Wine choice: Malbec, Syrah, Pinot Gris, Soave
14. Caws Teifi
This raw milk gouda-style round of loveliness is from the oldest artisan cheese maker in Wales. It’s based on a 500-year-old recipe, and named for the river Teifi which flows nearby. She’s smooth and mellow and sweet, with excellent inclusion varieties. I recommend the Teifi with cumin, and Teifi with chilli.
Serve with: Stoke’s Chilli Jam
Wine choice: Bourdeaux, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay
15. Cropwell Bishop’s stilton
For me, the Skailes family’s red waxed truckle of stilton is the last word in Christmas cheese. It is top of my must-have list and is, I think, the very best stilton out there. Released from its seal, it’s salty, sticky, buttery and has a fiery bite. If stilton
Wine choice: Sparkling wine, Sauternes, Port, Sherry, Marsala, local fruit wine from DJ Wines, mead
Tips for serving and buying cheese
1. Let your cheese breathe at room temperature for at least an hour before serving to let its true flavour reveal itself.
2. Only buy around 100g cheese per person.
3. Wrapped well, leftovers will be fine in the freezer for a couple of months – or use in luxury mac and cheese or cheese scones.
4. It’s worth investing in proper wax lined paper to store your cheeses after buying – get rid of that clingflim!
5. Seek out a good cheesemonger. They will keep the products at the correct temperature and only sell them at their peak. You'll find more choice too!
Charlotte’s local cheesemonger directory
Fergusonsdelicatessen.co.uk - Hadleigh, Suffolk
Slatecheese.co.uk - Southwold and Aldeburgh, Suffolk
Earshamstreetdeli.co.uk - Bungay, Norfolk
Hodsonco.co.uk, Aylsham, Norfolk
Hadleighfork.co.uk, hadleigh, Suffolk
Norfolk-deli.co.uk, Hunstanton, Norfolk
Grundisburghdogdeli.co.uk, Grundisburgh, Suffolk
Thornhamdeli.co.uk, Thornham, Norfolk
Walsingham.co, Walsingham, Norfolk
Elvedencourtyard.com, Elveden, Suffolk
Suffolkfoodhall.co.uk, Ipswich, Suffolk
Hollowtrees.co.uk, Semer, Suffolk
Fridaystfarm.co.uk, nr Aldeburgh, Suffolk
Oldhallfarm.co.uk, Woodton, Norfolk
Jarrold.co.uk, Norwich, Norfolk
Bakersandlarners.co.uk, Holt, Norfolk
The Cheeseman, Norwich Market
Wildgoosefinefoods.co.uk, Ipswich, Suffolk
Walker’s Cheese, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk