Christmas Day feasting can be a lengthy affair, with a variety of components that vary from home to home. Some families eat early in the day, while some choose to converge around the table after the evening darkness has descended. Every year in our house we aim to eat around 4pm, but without a doubt, it ends up being at least 5pm before we eventually make it to the table, which is usually groaning under the weight of far too many dishes. When we are amply sated and once the turkey has been banished to the fridge, it’s the cheese board that takes centre stage. Yes, there may well be dessert, but it’s the after dinner cheese board that I most anticipate, and one of the many highlights of Christmas Day for us is a mildly competitive game of Trivial Pursuit over the cheese and a bottle (or two) of port to accompany it. We have put together some ideas and pointers to help you to create the ultimate cheese board for the festive season, along with ideas for a pre-dinner antipasti and charcuterie platter to get those taste buds tingling.
The Ultimate Christmas Day Cheese Board.
It’s common knowledge that we eat with our eyes, and this remains true when it comes to assembling a cheese board. Not only should it be visually enticing, but it should also hold a variety of textures and flavours that complement each other. Think crumbly, sharp stilton, creamy brie or camembert, crunchy nuts and luscious fruit garnishes that will bring it all together. Try to resist going overboard, as a rule of thumb you will need 3 – 4 varieties of cheese, any more that that will confuse your palate and detract from the overall experience. Make sure to include both hard and soft cheeses to keep everyone happy. You should allow 100 – 125g per person, so for 6 people, a total of 750g should be plenty. If you buy larger pieces or wheels of individual cheeses, consider cutting them in half and storing some for the next day. If you include too much cheese at one sitting it is unlikely to be eaten and it can difficult to salvage cheese that has been sitting on a cheese board for a few hours while being prodded and poked by indecisive guests.
Stilton is arguably considered the most Christmassy of all the cheeses and it’s hard to disagree. As a teenager, my sister and I would escape increasingly raucous adults on Christmas Day and camp in the sitting room by the fire with a wedge of Stilton, crackers and some Port. Through trial and error we discovered that mashing the Stilton and the Port together to create a paste which we then slathered on crackers resulted in the ultimate fireside treat and to this day, it has remained my guilty pleasure. If Stilton is not to your taste, consider another blue cheese such as the increasingly popular Young Buck from XXXXX, or indeed a Cashel Blue.
The next classic cheese would usually be a Brie or Camembert style cheese, and there are many Irish varieties of available should you prefer to buy Irish. Cooleeney Camembert is excellent or The Little Milk Company does a nice Irish Brie which also happens to be organic.
For a hard cheese option, Comté is my go to cheese as it has a slightly nutty undertone and is extremely versatile. A decent vintage cheddar can also be a reliable option. And finally, my cheeseboard would not be complete without a generous wedge of Cambozola, a Germanic triple cream Brie style cheese, with the addition of Italian Gorgonzola. This, I could eat by the spoonful, no question. If that doesn’t appeal, another Irish staple is Mileens, which is always popular.
When it comes to crackers, thinner is always better in my opinion. Give me a thin and crunchy base over a thick and mealy oatcake any day of the week. The cracker is merely a vehicle to transport the cheese and should not in any way detract from the aroma or the flavour of the cheese. And let’s not forget that this selection is to be imbibed after the most glutinous meal of the year. Sheridan’s Brown Bread Crackers do the trick, as do Millers Damsel Wafers. For something a little different, The Foods of Athenry do a gluten free thin Cranberry and Hazelnut Soda Toast that would well, particularly with Goats Cheese.
Try not to over crowd the board as guests will need space to slice the cheese, and the softer cheeses will need space to spread out. For added interest, sliced apple or pear works well as a palate cleanser, or indeed as a replacement for crackers. Grapes are common too, and while figs and pomegranates look great they are generally decorative as they can be messy to eat. Nut wise, walnuts look the part and add both crunch and visual interest to the board. Sprigs of rosemary or other herbs can add some festive greenery too.
While chutney is a popular condiment, I usually prefer something lighter and with a smoother texture. Membrillo (quince) paste or pomegranate molasses works well here or both Fallon & Byrne and Sheridans stock Paiarrop Figs in PX Sherry (€4.50) which are excellent as is a drizzle of Irish Honey.
To drink, Port is the obvious choice here and is still my number one. LBV (Late Bottled Vintage) is the classic cheese accompaniment (Tesco Finest do an excellent one) but my choice is always Warre’s Otima 10 year Old Tawny Port. With its subtle hints of dried fruits, it is dangerously moreish (www.drinkstore.ie).
Should you prefer to have your Cheese selection served Antipasti style when your guests arrive, just make a few adjustments to ensure appetites are preserved for the main event. Remove half of the cheeses and add olives, cornichons, chorizo, Parma ham or salami, breadsticks (instead of crackers) and dice up 2 varieties of harder cheeses to keep a handle on portion control. Orange slices look good arranged around the board too. Set a few cocktails sticks on the side let everyone help themselves. Serve with ice cold dry Sherry, Dirty Martinis or Prosecco and bottoms up.
Nothing is guaranteed to ruin your efforts if you serve the cheese cold. Remember to store your cheeses at the bottom of the fridge and remove them at least one hour before serving. Bon Appétit.
Feature By: Ciara McQuillan