For advice on putting together the perfect Christmas cheeseboard, it makes sense to ask the Big Cheese, and Patricia Michelson is certainly that.
Since opening her first shop in Highbury in 1992, she’s built up La Fromagerie to three cheese emporia, which also sell recherché produce such as bergamot and sweet Tropea onions, as well as covetable paraphernalia (I love the heavy oak boards and slender knives with rosewood handles).
Michelson’s story starts on a winter trip to Méribel in the French Alps. After a bad skiing day, she tried a slice of local cheese and found it “made me feel so much better”, she told me over tea in the new Lamb’s Conduit Street shop.
It was a high-mountain summer cheese called Beaufort Chalet D’Alpage, and, although Michelson didn’t know it at the time, it would become La Fromagerie’s signature cheese.
She decided to buy some to bring home and, her French faltering, “instead of saying I wanted a ‘tranche’ I asked for ‘un pièce’ – which means a whole cheese”, she laughed.
The wheel that was delivered weighed 60kg (132lb) and was the size of a car tyre. Undeterred, she and her husband put it in the back of the car between their two young daughters, and drove it to London, where she stored it in the shed.
After running out of ways to use this cheese mountain, Michelson approached local restaurants to see if they would like to offer it to their guests. They loved it, and asked her to find other cheese, so she recruited a friend who ferried chalet girls back and forth from ski resorts to help with informal imports.
She started a market stall, then the Highbury shop, with a temperature and humidity-controlled cheese “cave”. A second shop opened in Marylebone, incorporating a “tasting café”, in 2002, and the third this year.
According to Michelson, the key to getting a cheeseboard right is to recognise that good, handmade cheese is seasonal. Some will vanish at some times of the year, like vacherin Mont D’Or, a soft Swiss cheese that is available only from September to May.
Many more will taste different at different times of year, as the milk alters according to what the animals are feeding on. Winter milk in northern Europe, made when the animals are mostly indoors eating hay, sileage and legumes, tends to be high-fat but one-dimensional in flavour. Summer milk in northern Europe, made by animals grazing on grass and wild plants, is often a bit lower in fat but with complex flavours.
With cow’s milk, the beta carotene in a grass diet makes for yellower summer cheese, although goat and sheep’s milk always makes a white cheese. And you have to factor the time it takes to make a cheese. A four-month-aged cheese that you eat today will have been made in August – so it’s actually a summer milk cheese.
But don’t get bogged down. What matters, says Michelson, is a willingness to make cheese part of the meal, rather than an afterthought, and to experiment, but not overcomplicate.
You don’t even need to heave around a cheeseboard. “It can be even better to put each cheese on a separate tile or plate and dot them around the table.” Comfort and cheese, for Christmas.
How much cheese do I need?
- The ideal cheeseboard has five or six cheeses, reckons Michelson.
- Allow about 25g per cheese per person, so a maximum of 150g per person in total, after a meal.
- If you’ve had a very good meal, you can get away with less, but if you are just putting cheese and charcuterie on the table then reckon on a little more.
How to store cheese
Once cheese is cut you have a limited time to keep it. But, says Michelson, you can look after it by creating a mini “cheese chamber”.
- Take the cheese out of any original plastic wrapping.
- Double wrap it in wax paper or greaseproof paper.
- Line the base of a plastic food box with a clean, damp J-cloth. Place the cheese inside.
- If you are keeping it for more than a day, add two sugar lumps. “The cubes will draw out excess moisture and off smells,” says Michelson.
- Cover tightly with the lid and store in the fridge.
- Take out the cheese half an hour before serving and lay on a board covered with a tea towel.
The best of British
There’s no reason not to stick to native cheeses, now that Britain officially has more types of fromage than France. British cheese expert Charlie Turnbull, of Turnbulls Deli in Dorset, picks out his top native cheeses.
- There’s not much Alpine-style cheese like gruyère made in the UK, but Turnbull recommends Mayfield, made with cow’s milk and aged for at least five months to give a creamy, sweet nutty flavour. Around £3/100g, alsopandwalker.co.uk
- For a great UK alternative to fresh goat’s cheese from the Loire, try Pavé Cobble, which won Supreme Champion at the British Cheese Awards this year. Around £8.25 each, whitelake.co.uk
- If gouda is your favourite, then try Cornish gouda (around £1.85/100g hansonfinefoods.co.uk). Another option is Cornish kern, winner of Supreme Champion at the World Cheese Awards last month, and made by Lynher Dairies, which also produces yarg. But as it has completely sold out, it may be one to order for next Christmas. Around £2.75/100g lynherdairies.co.uk
- For a washed rind cheese to compete with Époisses, try Renegade Monk by Marcus Fergusson. “Frankly, it’s a vicious little cheese; you need either to approach when it’s in a good mood (when it is superlative) or with a palette of steel. My customers love it,” says Turnbull. Around £7.50 each, from independent delis in Dorset and Somerset
To go with the cheese
Chutney, with its sour tang, is best left for a ploughman’s-style lunch rather than an after-dinner cheeseboard. Instead, try these...
Twenty-odd dried figs squidged together and baked into an intensely flavoured mass, then wrapped in fig leaves. Cut off chunks and eat with blue or goat’s cheese.
Seggiano Calabrian Fig Ball £5.85/200g, seggiano.com and independent delis
Sweet and musky, brilliant trickled over pecorino, as well as creamy soft goat’s cheese. Infused with slivers of real truffle, you can also put in salad dressings or use to glaze the turkey.
Acacia truffle honey £7.50/120g, souschef.co.uk
A chestnut paste mixed with orange zest and walnuts is particularly good with hard cow’s cheese. Its maker suggests stirring a spoonful into the turkey gravy.
Nuts About Chestnuts £3.10/90g, paxtonandwhitfield.co.uk
Quince cheese (or membrillo) is a cheeseboard staple, but damson cheese is even better, with a port-like tang. Brilliant with stilton.
Tracklements Damson Fruit Cheese £2.89/100g, ocado.com and independent delis