1. Getting the right look We eat with our eyes so looks really do count. Fortunately cheese comes in an array of colours, shapes and sizes, so your challenge is to get the arrangement right. For eye-catching colours, consider vibrant orange cheeses such as Sparkenhoe Red Leicester and Lincolnshire Red. These contain the natural vegetable dye ‘annatto’ and sit beautifully alongside blue-veined cheeses like Binham Blue and (a recent discovery of mine) the Balcombe Dairy ‘Blue Clouds’. My tip is to spread bite-size pieces across your platter, well-spaced to leave room for further treats to be added. The cheeses can be cut into different shapes, like small triangles, rectangles or sticks. Soft cheeses such as Baron Bigod are delicious but can be tricky to include as they start to ooze as they warm up.
Add dried fruit like figs and a few pieces of chocolate to complete the perfect look!
Choose an attractive platter appropriate in size for your number of guests. If you are hosting a large party, you might consider creating a grazing extravaganza on a length of baking parchment stretched out directly on your table.
2. Something for everyone People’s taste in cheese varies greatly. So whether you’re thinking of cheese from around the world, a Mediterranean platter or a classic British selection, make sure there’s at least three cheeses on offer. And always serve at least one familiar cheese.
There are four basic cheese types: aged, soft, firm and blue. A good variety will include at least one from each group. My recommendations? For aged: consider Aged Cheddar, Comte and Goat Gouda. For soft: Constant Bliss, Camembert and Brillat-Savarin. For firm: Manchego, Mimolette, Parmigiano-Reggiano. And for Blue: Gorgonzola Dolce, Valdeón and Stilton.
You can also try selecting cheeses by the type of milk used (cow, goat or sheep). This will ensure a range of different flavours on the plate.
My favourite Cheddars
For my festive board I would choose one from: - Black Bomber, with an attractive wax black jacket and an intense and strong taste. - Cornish Yarg, a delicate yoghurt cheese very different to black bomber and very well presented wrapped in nettle leaves. - Sussex Charmer, made then aged for two years at Plaw Hatch Farm, East Sussex. This vintage Cheddar is and is from cows bred for a richer, creamier milk.
3. A blend of textures and tastes The perfect cheese platter pleases all tastes. Think of it as a 'mini meal' on a plate, as it will be for many people enjoying a cosy winter night with a glass of red wine. So pick your accompaniments carefully. Think breads, crackers (the more shapes and sizes the better), chutneys, fruit (figs, cherries, apples, or pears) and chocolate (dark and some milk with fruit and nut). Charcuterie can add antipasti to the selection, offering your guests a range of different meat flavours and textures. Circles of salami or coppa may be fanned out of folded in half, then slices of Parma or Serrano Ham may be ‘scrunched’ in to attractive parcels.
You may also want to keep certain areas of your board vegetarian to cater for all dietary needs of your guests. Try sweet preserves or honey and tart chutneys. You can add artichoke hearts, roasted red peppers, caponata and even salty or sweet nuts. If you have a bit more time, prepare caramelised onions, which complement most cheese plates.
When you’re done, try this quick check. Is there something crunchy, soft, spicy, salty and sweet? If there is, the chances are you’ve created a potentially great platter of food.
One great thing I’ve learned is to separate strong-smelling cheeses. If you’re serving a very pungent cheese, place it on a separate plate so it doesn't overpower more delicate offerings. And don’t overdo it! Four or five choices are more than enough.
It’s also important to remove the cheese from the fridge for an hour before serving as the cold mutes the cheese flavour.
Now spread out the spread. Place your cheese platters and the other nibbles on several tables to avoid guest gridlock. Label each cheese so you won’t need to recite the names all evening. If you like, also jot down a few poetic adjectives describing its flavour.
Remember too that Christmas cake goes beautifully with a cheese board!
The expert view: Clare from Slate Cheese, Aldburgh
“It wouldn’t be Christmas without a tangy blue to enjoy with a slice of fruit cake – rich and creamy Shropshire Blue, from the makers of Cropwell Bishop Stilton, is one of the best. A Cheddar is a must too and we’ve selected a delicious new one from Trethowan's Dairy. The long-lasting finish of award-winning Pitchfork pairs beautifully with a spoonful of Slate chutney. Pave Cobble, an ash-coated sheep’s cheese, completes our trio with a light and delicate dimension. Serve all three with delightfully crunchy Peter’s Yard Sourdough Crispbreads for a Christmas cheeseboard to remember.”
Slate Cheese Tasting Notes:
Cropwell Bishop Shropshire Blue is a handmade semi-hard, blue veined cheese with a creamy taste and golden orange colour. Pitchfork is a brand-new award-winning Cheddar, handmade to a traditional recipe by Trethowan's Dairy in Somerset. Its flavour has savoury tones and a long-lasting tangy finish. Pavé Cobble is a sweet and creamy ash-coated sheep’s cheese made by White Lake Cheese in Pylle, Somerset.
Want more advice?
One of my simplest (and favourite!) cheese recipes is a baked brie or camembert. It’s an easy, relaxed and very social way of entertaining and you don't need to have anything fancy in the way of bakers or gadgets. Drop me an email for serving suggestions or more recipes and ideas.