My girls and I are a small group of very different personalities, with widely diverse interests and passions. Our overwhelming love for food is where we happily (and hungrily) collide, especially where wine and cheese are concerned. Many a night we can be found, knives in hand, cackling with laughter through mouths full of gorgonzola and tearing through bottles of wine like it was going out of fashion.
Most of these nights are fairly impromptu and not at all formal, and everyone just shows up clutching a bottle of wine and a lump or two of cheese. There’s usually at least one or two of us in pyjamas, and bras are optional. We’re a sophisticated bunch, alright? If I was going to do it up right though, for a classy dinner party (were I ever in a position to be hosting such a thing, which seems unlikely) I’d take the time to put together a proper, planned cheeseboard.
There are a few things to consider when you’re designing your perfect cheeseboard. What you’re going for is a reasonably varied selection to keep it interesting, including a few different types of milk (cow, sheep, goat or buffalo) as well as different textures, ranging from hard and crumbly right up to soft and oozy. Here’s a set of rough guidelines as to what you might like to include.
(I’ve named each of the following guidelines after a song I like, because I’m a dork.)
(I’ve used the word dork because lame 90s insults make me happy.)
Let’s start with a hard cheese, a well-aged beauty with a crumbly texture and crunchy, crystallised salt crystals. Think an aged Gouda from Holland, or maybe a French Mimolette to add a bright splash of colour to your selection. If you happen to live here in Ireland, then go and get yourself a decent slab of Coolea Extra Mature; a real aged British Cheddar would also be ideal. You could alternatively include a hard sheeps’ cheese here, like the classic Italian Pecorino, or a nice fruity Manchego from Spain.
Now you want a soft one to complement that. Something creamy and runny, like a ripe Camembert or Brie, would be perfect. If you can get your hands on a lovely oozy Epoisses, and your friends are anything like mine, they may never leave.
At this stage, you might add in a semi-soft cheese to balance things out. A decent goats’ log would be a great call (in Ireland, try St. Tola, an amazing organic goats’ cheese from the west coast.) Alternatively, try a washed-rind cheese like an Italian Taleggio, or the groaningly-good Reblochon from France; Morbier is one of my absolute favourites, with a distinctive layer of vegetable ash through its core. From Ireland, have a look at Gubbeen, Durrus, or Milleens.
Now for a blue cheese. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, Cambozola is a good place to start if you, or your guests, are unsure about the funkier blues. As a long-time lover of beautiful blues, however, I’d plump for something stronger. Try a lovely cave-aged Roquefort from France, creamy white shot with patterned blue-green penicillin veins, or a pungent Italian Gorgonzola. A real English Stilton is a classic choice, and Stitchelton, the raw milk equivalent, has a lovely caramel sweetness melting into a deep cream finish. Meanwhile, in Ireland, the delicious sheeps’ milk Crozier Blue is an interesting choice, and Bellingham Blue has just the right amount of punch.
Now that your cheeseboard is looking more complete, go crazy (“Don’t mind if I dooo!”) and throw in a wild card. Find something a bit different to finish off your cheeseboard. A ball of good-quality buffalo milk mozzarella is always a good time (and if you can find burrata, then don’t even think twice about it. Burrata is a sexy, sexy cheese, and should be eaten at any possible opportunity.) Here’s where you can add a goats’ or sheeps’ milk cheese if there isn’t one on the board already, or maye something fresh and young like a ricotta.
Make It Pretty Baby
Now it’s time to arrange your cheeses on a plate, board or platter: whatever you have in the depths of your kitchen, and whatever looks pretty. Ideally the cheeses you’ve chosen have contrasting shapes, making your board a mini piece of art with different wheels, wedges, and logs.
The size of your cheeseboard is completely up to you and your budget restraints, and the above categories are of course only guidelines. That said, choosing three different cheeses is probably the bare minimum; also, this sounds insanely fussy, but it’s a good idea to have an odd number of cheeses where possible. It’s been scientifically proven that odd numbers are more pleasing to the human eye; this is probably because of their prevalence in nature, like how the leaves of a bush grow in odd numbers. In any case, your cheeseboard will look more balanced if you have three, five or seven cheeses.
Now for the trimmings. As far as crackers go, I’m more of a cheese-in-fingers, fingers-to-mouth kind of girl (yup, I’m classy alright) but most normal people like some sort of vessel for their cheese. Pick up a packet or two of whatever takes your fancy. Fruit is definitely optional, but it can look über-pretty if you’re out to impress. Apples and grapes are the classics, but pears are a great addition, and never underestimate how unbelievable sweet, ripe figs taste with salty cheese. Some people like olives with their cheese and, y’know, each to their own… but it is my own personal view that those people are wrong and olives are horrible. (Even the word “olives” is an anagram of “so evil.” Coincidence? I think not.) Sun-dried tomatoes, pickles, or cured meats like proscuitto are also happy additions.
If you happen to be hanging out with my BFF Jules, a word of warning: she has a unhealthy obsession with any and all types of chutney, and having at least one on the table is crucial. (Otherwise you’ll have to listen to a heavy sigh of “Oh, I wish we had a nice chutney!” repeated at regular intervals throughout the evening.) Aside from chunky chutneys, a little dish of honey is good with soft goats cheeses, or aged Parmigiano; a nice black cherry or cranberry jam will be perfect with Brie or similar bloomy-rind cheeses.
Now that I’ve told you all the supposed rules, feel free to break any and all of them. If you really hate blue cheese, you’re crazy, but you’re perfectly entitled to leave it out. Maybe you really love oozy, gooey cheeses and want to have a board dedicated solely to the sexiest bloomy rinds you can get your hands on. It might be Cheddar night in your house, or perhaps you want an Italian-themed cheeseboard. There are no hard and fast rules here, and you do whatever works for you and your guests.
Now you’ve got everything sorted, your cheeseboard looks interesting, classy, and varied. It’s important to let the cheeses out of the fridge for at least an hour before you plan on inducing your cheese coma, so that they have time to come to room temperature and really show off their flavours. After that, it’s time for the most important part. Open a bottle or two of wine, get some knives and plates out, and dig right in. If your mates are anything like mine, give it half an hour, and then listen to a satisfied chorus of “Ohhh, I’m so full,” while everyone rubs their bellies with one hand… and keeps eating with the other.
How do you like to put together your cheeseboard? Feel free to leave me a comment below, on any topic from cheese and crackers to Dawson Leery and lame 90s insults.