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Christmas Cheese: How to select, care for and serve your cheese plate

christmas-cheese-board

by Glynn Anderson, author of Farmhouse Cheeses of Ireland, a Celebration

It’s always nice to try something new at Christmas and, if you haven’t done it before, presenting a cheese plate is one way of doing that without going too crazy. You can serve your cheese plate in addition to or instead of dessert but you mightn’t want to give up your Christmas ‘pud’.  A cheese plate also goes down well if you’re throwing a Christmas party.

For your Christmas dinner cheese plate, you’ll need to think about how adventurous the palates of your dinner guests are. While getting more adventurous all the time, we Irish still tend to be a little conservative when it comes to cheese, and you’ll need to accommodate that. Make sure you have enough cheese and buy as close to the day as possible. The great thing about cheese is that if you’ve any left over, it will keep, as long as you stick to a few guidelines which you’ll find below.

Choose no more than five or six different cheeses. Your guests will want to ask you about the cheeses and to take the names away with them. Too many cheeses will cause confusion. Decide if you want an international cheese platter, or be patriotic and choose Irish cheeses. The quality and variety of Irish farmhouse cheeses means an all-Irish cheese platter is easy to achieve. Here we’ll look at putting together a few different Irish cheese platters.

Ideally buy your cheese from a cheese-speciality shop or delicatessen. Even better, if you have access to a farmers’ market or even some farmhouse cheesemakers, get at least some of your cheeses there. If you have to get your cheese from a chain, choose one that has a good deli section or has a reputation for good farmhouse cheese. Supermarket chains have upped their game as regards farmhouse cheeses and it is possible to get a good selection there.

Make sure you select a good variety of cheese flavours and textures. Have at least one cows-milk cheese, one goats-milk cheese and one sheeps-milk cheese, bearing in mind the warning above about the palate of your guests. Avoid industrial mass-produced cheeses. There’s nothing wrong with them but they will appear bland and uninteresting beside good-quality farmhouse cheeses.

By all means include a cheddar but why not seek out a good Irish farmhouse cheddar like Mount Callan from Clare, Coolattin from Wicklow, Hegarty’s from Cork or Béal from Kerry. Include one blue cheese. You have a lot to choose from in Ireland now. You can’t go wrong with Cashel Blue cows-milk cheese made by the Grubb family in Tipperary or if your guests are adventurous, seek out the wonderful sheeps-milk Crozier Blue, also from the Grubbs. Include one of the wonderful terracotta-coloured washed-rind cheeses from Cork. Choose at least one of Ardrahan, Durrus, Gubbeen or Milleens.

Add at least one white-mould cheese, and you can’t go wrong with Cooleeney from Tipperary or their goats-milk variety Gortnamona. St. Killian from Carrigbyrne in Wexford is also a wonderful distinctly Irish cheese from the brie/camembert fold. As well as your cheddar you can add another hard to semi-hard cheese. Coolea from Cork is an excellent candidate. Somewhat reminiscent of both gouda and edam, this is also a unique Irish cheese in its own right with a slightly touch of caramel flavour. Another excellent modern Irish hard cheese is Glebe Brethan, made by the Tiernan’s in county Louth.

You might also consider a very soft spreadable cheese, which can be eaten with crackers. Yeats soft cheese, from Sligo is excellent as is Ardsallagh goats-milk cheese from Cork or pick from the wonderful St. Tola range, from Clare. If you like, you could also seek out a smoked variety of some of the above.

If you have vegetarian guests, you might take time to ensure that at least one of your cheeses is made from vegetarian rennet. If it doesn’t say it on the wrapper, ask the cheesemonger. If you’re serving raw-milk soft cheese, be sure to signal this to any guests who are more susceptible to microbial infection: the very young, the very old, the pregnant or people who are already ill.

Why not invest in a box of assorted crackers to go with the cheeses? Avoid strongly flavoured crackers. You can also provide fruit; chopped apple goes great with cheese. Quince paste is excellent with hard cheeses such as cheddar. You can also try chutney, jam and marmalade…

You’ll need something to wash down your cheese. Both wine and beer go well with cheese, but not together. If you’ve had wine with your meal, continue with the wine theme. Red wine is usually better with cheese. If it’s part of the dessert course, feel free to use some dessert wine. The sweet taste goes well with many cheeses but you’ll need to experiment.

So here are three sample Irish cheese plates. Depending on where you live you might want to swap one or more out for a local farmhouse cheese.

CHEESE PLATE 1

  • Mount Callan Cheddar, Clare, raw-cows-milk, hard, can be strong-flavoured, non-veg
  • Coolea, Cork, cows-milk, semi-hard, distinctive mild flavour, non-veg
  • Milleens, Cork, cows-milk, semi-soft, washed-rind, strong flavour and aroma, non-veg
  • Cooleeney, Tipperary, cows-milk (raw or pasteurised), soft, white-mould, some may find the mature cheese strong-flavoured, veg
  • Cashel Blue, Tipperary, cows-milk, semi-soft, blue, distinctive semi-strong ‘blue’ flavour, veg
  • St. Tola Divinem, Clare, raw-goats-milk, soft, mild-flavoured, non-veg, organic

CHEESE PLATE 2

  • Hegarty’s Cheddar,Cork, cows-milk, hard, can be strong-flavoured, veg
  • Drumlin, from Corleggy, Cavan, raw-cows-milk, hard, smoked-variety, strong flavour, veg
  • Gubbeen, Cork, cows-milk, semi-soft, washed-rind, strong flavour, non-veg
  • Gortnamona, Tipperary, goats-milk, soft, white-mould, mild goat-flavour, veg
  • Crozier Blue, Tipperary, sheeps-milk, semi-soft, blue, strong ‘blue’ flavour, veg
  • Ardsallagh, Cork, goats-milk, soft, mild flavour, veg

CHEESE PLATE 3

  • Coolattin Cheddar, Wicklow, raw-cows-milk, hard, can be strong-flavoured, non-veg
  • Glebe Brethan, Louth, raw-cows-milk, hard, distinctive medium-flavour, non-veg
  • Ardrahan, Cork, cows-milk, semi-soft, washed-rind, strong flavour, veg
  • St. Killian, Wexford, cows-milk, soft, aged cheese can have strong flavour, veg
  • Bellingham Blue, Louth, raw-cows-milk, semi-hard, strong to very strong ‘blue’ flavour, veg
  • Yeats, Sligo, cows-milk, soft, mild flavour, veg, organic

CHEESY GUIDELINES

  • Only buy as much cheese as you think you’ll need and buy as close to the day as possible, preferably from a cheese-speciality retailer.
  • Don’t buy cheese if the packaging or cheese itself looks aged. Smell the cheese. Some cheeses are supposed to have a strong smell but if you smell ammonia, it’s best to leave it.
  • You can sometimes find a cheesy bargain in the ‘reduced’ section of your supermarket. A cheese gone past its sell-by date is not necessarily past its best.
  • A good cheesemonger will let you taste the cheese. If you don’t like it, try something else. Ask the cheesemonger if the cheese is at the ideal point (à point) in its maturation cycle for eating.
  • Every time cheese is left out it dehydrates a little. Don’t leave it out for longer than necessary.
  • If your cheese comes wrapped in cling film, ideally rewrap it in cheese paper or if unavailable, use aluminium foil.
  • If you do have cheese left over, you can rewrap it and store it in the fridge. Ideally wrap in cheese paper, or if not, aluminium foil and if you’ve none of that you can use cling film but that won’t allow the cheese to breathe. Use new wrapping each time you rewrap.
  • Cheese that has somewhat dehydrated or is looking a little old can still be used in cooking. While white and blue moulds are associated with cheese, always throw out old cheese that has red or black mould on it.
  • If your soft white-mould cheese is still a little chalky in the middle, you can mature it by leaving it out of the fridge, but make sure it is inaccessible to vermin and covered with a bowl or the like, to minimise dehydration.

Serving Your Cheese

On the day the cheese is to be eaten, take it out of the fridge and out of its wrapper ahead of time and allow it to reach room temperature. This will maximise both the flavour and texture.

If you feel adventurous, label your cheese so people know what they’re eating. If that sounds like too much trouble, leave the wrappers accessible so people can see what they’re eating.

Most importantly, encourage your guests to eat the cheese in order of strength of flavour: start with the milder flavours first. If you eat the strong flavours first you’ll miss out on the more delicate nuances of the others.

Provide plenty of space for your guests to cut the cheese. Use a big wooden cheeseboard or chopping board or several small ones. Slate cheeseboards have also become popular recently.

Provide several knives to cut the cheese and encourage your guests not to cross-contaminate the knives between cheeses. That will only spread the flavours, and the mould!

Tell your guests as much about the cheeses as you can and most importantly, enjoy the experience.

A perfect present for the cheese lover, Glynn’s book, Farmhouse Cheeses of Ireland, A Celebration {Collins Press}  is available from all good bookshops including Easons and Amazon.  A digital version is also available.

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One comment on “Christmas Cheese: How to select, care for and serve your cheese plate

  1. Pingback: Christmas Roasties

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This entry was posted on December 14, 2012 by in Misc and tagged , , , , , , , , .

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