How to make the Ultimate Cheese Board
The cheese board, an alluring display of delicious sensory treasures just waiting to be discovered, or simply plain old boring cheese? Its an easy choice, but what you might find surprising is how simple it is to get it right.
Cheese does not require a lot of preparation, and the only skill required in putting together a great cheese combination is imagination, a little care, and a good cheese supplier.
Sharing a selection of good cheese, and of course a glass or two of wine, with a few friends is a great way of entertaining. The conventional cheese assortment consists of between three and five types of cheese, and includes a soft, a blue, and a hard cheese. But there is nothing to say you can’t use a single type of cheese either; for example blue cheeses made from cow, goat and ewes milk, matched with a dessert wine. Even a single fantastic cheese (such as the triple cream Brillat Savarn) is acceptable, because there are no rules. With countless varieties available the most important consideration is interesting flavours and optimum condition and the crucial influences on this are milk type, the technique and skills of the cheese maker, and the season the cheese was made.
Any good selection will include hand made artisan and farmhouse cheeses with a natural rind. Chances are you won’t find these in your local supermarket, but a good specialist shop which matures cheese under special humidity and temperature controlled conditions. If you are not sure about what cheese you want the best approach is to be guided by the enthusiasm of the person behind the counter. They handle the cheese everyday so will know when a particular cheese is at its best, as well its pedigree and perhaps even who makes it. Allow up to 50gms of each cheese per person, but don’t over do it , because keeping cheese in good condition at home is difficult.
All hand made cheeses vary in quality from one batch to the next, but predictable seasonal tendencies are the foundation of any selection, particularly for cheese made in Australia because of the pasture based feeding system for dairy animals. Despite some restrictions we are very fortunate to be able to enjoy a choice from both hemispheres throughout the year. Whilst a particular region or country can be used as the basis for a selection this is often at the expense of missing out on great benchmark cheeses from elsewhere.
A little mental arithmetic on how long cheeses take to mature and you have the basis of a winning combination. Spring and Autumn milk is responsible for some of the finest blue and hard cheese varieties, whilst autumn milk makes the best soft surface ripened cheese. Few great cheeses are made in winter, (although there are exceptions like Vacherin Mont D’or ) but the colder months are the ideal time to enjoy the rich concentrated goodness of harder cheese types.
If you have gone to the trouble of buying good cheese then presenting it attractively deserves special attention. Lay out the cheese on natural materials such as marble, wicker or wood, use the contrasting shapes and colours. The most important consideration of all is temperature, and whatever you do avoid serving cheese too cold. Cheese tastes best when served at between 14-16c, which means removing the cheese from the fridge at least 2-3 hours in advance. If you leave it wrapped it will sweat or dry out, particularly in an air conditioned environment . The best way to prevent this is to unwrap the cheeses and cover them with a clean damp cotton napkin. This creates the ideal conditions to protect the cheese, and well as allowing you time to work on more complicated aspects of a meal.
Here are some of my favourite cheese board selections, but don’t take them as gospel because its far better you get out there and experiment for yourself.
The Classic Selection.
Its no coincidence that the cheese board in France is traditionally one of the high points of a meal. France produces more varieties of cheese for the table than any other in Europe and my selection might include: a soft hand ladled spring Camembert de Normandie with its nuances of wet hay and cauliflower; a new season creamy Le Roi Roquefort with its lingering salty tang, a dense nutty Beaufort matured for at least 12 months and made from milk collected in the high alpage during the summer. Add to that several small goat cheeses such as rich creamy Chabicou du Poitou and several discs of the unctuous Rocamadour, some wood oven baked bread from Poilane, as of course some good wine ( a red and a sweet dessert wine ) and heaven can wait!
The Seasonal Selection
Season plays such an important role in any selection that it makes a lot of sense to develop a theme based around a cheese type when it at its best. The onset of Autumn is always a good time for washed rind cheeses, not simply because of milk quality, but also because cooler weather conditions are better suited for entertaining with strong ‘whiffy ‘ cheese. My selection would include Jensens Red from Gippland, a Red Square from Northern Eastern Tasmania, Munster from Alsace, and a Le Conquerant Pont L’eveque from Normandy, matched with a Pinot Gris and served with rye or fruit bread.
The Desert Island Selection
I am often asked what is my favourite cheese, but the truth is that I don’t have just one. I avoid the question by answering ” it all depends, there are far too many to wonderful cheeses to make such a call. However if forced to choose just one cheese suitable for a desert island it would have to be a first grade Cravero Parmigiano Reggiano selected and matured for its moist texture and sweet dolce flavours. Like many hard cheeses primarily used for grating good Parmigiano it is often overlooked as a table cheese – But that’s the point really, because there are no rules other than keep it interesting or become ‘cheese bored!’