The Cheese Board
There is nothing quite like a good cheese board – well flavoured cheese of different types complimenting each other while also standing firmly on their own two feet. It takes a little bit of thought, not only about the cheese but also about the people who you plan on serving it to. Are they seasoned cheese eaters, used to strong flavours or are they somewhat conservative, sticking to the tried and true? Or is there a mix of both?
I recently started working for Sheridans Cheese Mongers in Naas. We have over 70 different cheeses available at the counter and so my knowledge of cheese has increased drastically over the past couple of months. At this stage, I’ve put together countless cheese board selections. Sometimes people know exactly what they want but mostly they’re not sure, looking for recommendations from us staff.
Cheese Board Philosophy
I always start with the same general philosophy – one hard, one soft, one blue and one special cheese. This usually results in a balanced board that most people will enjoy. I also like to pick mostly Irish cheese – we really do have some of the best cheese in the world that is often overlooked for more familiar names.
The hard cheese is often the first one picked. Most people will automatically go for a cheddar and while this is a perfectly reasonable route to take, I’m going to throw in a few other choices too. Going through the Irish options first, Coolea is one of my favourites for this position. It’s made in Co. Cork (a county that will appear time and again in this article) in a Gouda style. It’s not as strong as some mature Dutch Gouda’s, an advantage on a board – you don’t want one cheese to overpower all others. I’m also a big fan of 15 Fields Cheddar (a sharp yet well rounded cheddar), Cais Na Tíre, a wonderful sheeps cheese from Tipperary and Killeen Goat, a hard goats cheese from Co. Galway.
Moving further afield, it’s hard to beat an aged Gruyere or Comte. The crystals forming in the cheese give a lovely texture while the nutty finish will linger on. A Manchego can also play a lovely part in this role but my favourite (when not sticking with Irish) is a well aged piece of Parmesan freshly cut from the wheel. It’s mostly overlooked as a cheese for nibbling on but it is wonderful when freshly cut.
This is the most difficult slot to fill. Everybody has their favourites with Brie being the most recognisable in this role. Staying within our lovely Island, I tend to go for a washed rind cheese like Gubbeen or Durrus (both Co. Cork) with both offering a beautiful depth of flavour. Wicklow Bán Brie is a mild but delicious option but I also wouldn’t overlook a soft goats cheese here – St. Tola Ash (from County Clare) being my personal favourite.
Moving abroad, a nice Brie is the obvious choice here and one that most people will recognise and enjoy. It’s not the only option however with numerous French goats cheese (Pouligny-Saint-Pierre or Sainte-Maure de Touraine for me) well worth considering while a ripe Pont L’Eveque is difficult to beat.
For me, there is only ever one option in this position – Young Buck. Made by Mike Thompson in County Down, it is a wonderfully deep blue not too unlike a Stilton. It has been my favourite cheese for quite some time – I was sure that would change once I started working behind a cheese counter but it still reigns supreme. Cashel Blue is also delicious, just be sure to buy it matured while Crozier Blue, also made by Cashel is a sheeps milk blue with a stronger flavour. If you are wary of blue cheese, I would go for Wicklow Blue – a mild blue brie that shouldn’t scare anyone away.
This is one area where I’m not going to refer to France. Although some of the best blue cheese comes from there, all of my favourites are from elsewhere. Montagnolo is a blue brie from Germany that is very similar to Cambozola. It’s great for people who do not like blue cheese, they may even be pleasantly surprised. Gorgonzola is a rich, creamy blue from Italy while it’s still difficult to write off a good Stilton or Shropshire Blue.
This position gives you free reign to do as you please. You can go for something completely out of the ordinary or a wedge of something that is perfectly ripe and in top condition, even if it overlaps a bit with one of those above.
If sticking with Irish, this is where I would insert a smoked cheese. Gubbeen and Knockanore both make beautiful examples but Smoked Durrus takes my vote here. It’s flavour instantly brings me back to the old turf fire in my Grandparents house while the smoke is quite mild in comparison to others.
This is also the position where I would consider a rich, indulgent cheese. Delice de Bourgogne and Brillat-Savarin are French triple cream cheeses. Don’t skimp on these, they will vanish quickly and are beautiful spread thickly over crackers. It is also worth mentioning that a baked cheese is also an option for this spot – Mont D’Or is made only in Winter and is synonymous with Christmas. It’s a wonderful Winter treat and a welcome addition to any board. Baking Cooleeney is an Irish Camembert style cheese that comes in it’s own terracotta dish for baking – perfect with some breadsticks.
I’m a firm believer in “less is more.” I like to let the cheese shine through so don’t like to include anything with too strong a flavour. I usually go for a plain cracker or, believe it or not, a digestive biscuit. Freshly baked bread is also ideal here. I like to include something sharp to cut through the rich cheese – pickled cornichon are my go to but pickled onions or cucumber would also work a treat. I also like to include either a chutney or quince paste and although I rarely use them myself, others will expect them. Some people like to add fruit, olives, nuts etc to their board. That’s not really for me but by all means do it if it makes you happy.
While a cheese board and in particular a Christmas cheese board is a time to be generous, I would also caution against buying too much and having a mountain of cheese go to waste. Putting together a board as a main dish is one thing but most people will be serving a cheese board after a big meal when people may not be hungry for it. I reckon 25g – 30g of each cheese per person is generous but if you feel that your guests will eat more, or the cheese board is the main event then by all means buy more.
Disclaimer: Although I work for Sheridans Cheese Mongers, this post is entirely my own opinion and was not sponsored, endorsed or requested by Sheridans.