Blog on… Cheese boards
My first blog and back to my roots to tell you a story, suggest some great independent cheese shops to try and some ideas for serving cheese platters. Want the speed version? Scroll to the end for three delicious cheese board ideas for your festive table.
One of my tests before becoming a food buyer at Sainsbury’s HQ was to have my nose and taste buds assessed. I had to prove that I could pick up a good selection of flavour and aroma profiles (kind of important if you are selecting and selling food ideas for a living). You say that, some members of our team were heavy smokers. A complete taste bud and appetite shocker?! Sign of the times I guess (bit like worrying that the IT world might end with the Millennium and wondering what the Ferris wheel on South Bank was or what was with a massive plastic tent near Wapping?!).
Having made it in, I was thrilled to move into the Cheese Buying team and be put in charge of deli counter cheese and Snacking cheese – a.k.a. fun cheese (think Dairylea & Babybel). There’s nothing like having a job that people can see and consume to spark a good chat. It was a great job.
Worked so much better than any chats about what exactly management consultancy was in the years that followed. I moved into consulting, firstly to help suppliers get the best from their relationships with the big supermarkets and then later into HR consulting (lost you yet? See!).
But last month I made it back to the inner sanctuary of cheese – it felt warm and familiar – like a favourite jumper. I went to (well I say went to, ‘Zoomed’) a cheese tasting hosted by Paxton & Whitfield www.paxtonandwhitfield.co.uk. My cheeses were delivered Wednesday with tasting notes and then a simple online gathering of less than an hour had a sold-out audience guided through sampling (glass in hand, as recommended) by their Head of Retail, Hero Hirsch. She runs courses at The Academy of Cheese – yes, that’s a thing – and she was fantastic at calling the acid, creamy, bloomy, citrus notes of all the cheeses we had been sent and just helping us remember how delicious small batch cheese is. It tastes like it is made by passionate people
Paxton & Whitfield have three beautiful shops in Bath, Chelsea and St James’ which are well worth a visit. They have two of royal warrants and have been doing this since 1797. There’s nothing intimidating though – novices very welcome, just prep yourself for the hit of non-pasteurised cheese – wakes up your nose and some. Go in and you’ll be greeted with wall to wall cheese and real people behind the counter who can’t wait to get you tasting and share the story behind the morsel you are offered. Defy you not to come out with loads of wax paper wrapped wedges of deliciousness.
As buyers, we used to visit shops like this to make sure we were on our game and giving the mass market just a taste of what you could experience in a specialist independent. If this is something you fancy doing – definitely add La Fromagerie : https://www.lafromagerie.co.uk for continental cheeses and Neals’ Yard in Covent Garden: https://www.nealsyarddairy.co.uk for the British Isles finest to your tour.
We were also lucky enough to do supplier trips abroad. Nothing like meeting a herd of buffaloes then trying the freshest, plumpest mozzarella di bufala, or wandering out of a gorgonzola cave to eat the salty, blue, creamy cheese straight from the truckle with fresh slice of pear and bread. To say nothing of a day spent browsing the greatest cheese shops in Paris. Can you really call that a job?
Not here to gloat. More to say that if you haven’t been to any of these shops or know your Fourme D’Ambert from your Epoisses – not a problem. You can access all this artisan loveliness from your own home as buying cheese remotely is really easy.
All 3 independents named above have great online shops and will look after you; delivering right up to a handful of days before Christmas. They ‘know their mushrooms’ as an Italian once told me (think the food equivalent of The Knowledge for cabbies) and even offer ready-selected cheese boards so you can one-click buy for speed & ease. Use their knowledge and just enjoy the result. With chutneys, crackers and food gifts also on offer – there is proper armchair pleasure to be had with this type of online shopping.
If you fancy some ideas right here – to buy wherever you are – I have put at the end three cheese boards I would serve at my table. For those who want them to tickle their tastebuds rather than knock them out, try eating them mild to strong – I’ve put them in that order for you.
If you are going to treat yourself to a proper platter, especially if it’s for a meal in it’s own right (what better – add a roaring fire or great film or both?!) or instead of dessert, here are some serving suggestions to make it special:
Cheese out of the fridge at least 30 mins before you want to eat it.
Get a couple of knives on the go and leave them wedged under the cheese they are for.
Celery cut the thickness and length of your index finger (no one wants a whole stick!)
A selection of crackers (maybe a Carrs’ mixed box or a mixture of water biscuits, oatcakes, charcoal crackers and good old Jacobs).
Quince jelly – traditionally served with Spanish manchego, but also great with cheddar or other hard cheese. Or a delicious, tart fruit chutney.
Slices of apple or pear sprinkled with a little lemon juice – or to make life easy, just some chilled and washed grapes.
In terms of wine, a robust white, warm red or port all work. If you have a great wine merchant near you – they are really good at helping with matching ideas:
Dorstone – goat’s cheese
Mrs Kirkham’s Lancashire
Oxford Blue or Kentish Blue
Saint-Maure de Touraine – goat
Brie de Meaux
Comte (pref 18 months +)
Forme d’Ambert – blue
Pennard Ridge – hard goat’s cheese
An unpasteurised Camembert of choice