After decades of limited choice, consumers have countless cheeses to contemplate. But can traditional and artisan coexist on the festive cheeseboard?

No festive feast is complete without a positively groaning cheeseboard. And while British cheese has formerly been the poor relation of its continental cousins, there is now an enormous variety of traditional and artisan cheeses to choose from. But how to prepare the best Christmas cheeseboard? Ettie Neil-Gallacher learns from the experts.

For more on the festive feast, read Stir-Up Sunday: stir up, we beseech thee to discover how our favourite figgy pudding actually has its origins in pottage.

THE BEST CHRISTMAS CHEESEBOARD

Charles de Gaulle, the post-war president of France, lamenting its disparate factions, famously asked, “How can one govern a country that has 246 different kinds of cheese?” Goodness knows how he would have fared in Theresa May’s kitten heels today, when, according to the British Cheese Board, there are more than 700 named cheeses in the UK. Perhaps the curds and whey, rather than Corbyn and Brexit, are the source of her troubles after all.

Best Christmas cheeseboard

British cheeses – almost 1,000 competed at the British Cheese Awards this year.

Cheese from these isles has long been regarded as the poor relation beside its fanatical French, serious Swiss and imaginative Italian cousins. Time was when British cheese brought to mind thoughts of plastic Cheddar and acrid Red Leicester, fresh from the supermarket via the fridge. At this time of year, we might have masochistically treated ourselves to a bitter lump of Stilton on a water biscuit, washed down with a badly cellared non-vintage port.

While we still import around three times the amount of cheese we export, to misquote Bob Dylan, the rinds they are a-changin’.

Peter Mitchell, chairman of the British Cheese Awards, concurs. The awards hosted 150 cheesemakers and just under a thousand different cheeses at the Bath & West Show this year. Mitchell says this is a natural home for a cheese festival, with the warmer, wetter climate to the west of the UK meaning it has always been a bounteous source of cheese. The 2017 Supreme Champion was White Lake Cheese’s sheep’s milk Pavé Cobble and this perhaps epitomises wherein this change is found: in small-scale, independent cheesemaking. Mitchell attributes this diversity to “artisan cheesemakers making Continental-style cheeses”.

CONTINENTAL STYLE

This seems to be the main area of growth. The annual Artisan Cheese Fair in Melton Mowbray started seven years ago with nine different cheeses; this year, the event showcased 300 from 69 makers. Organiser Matthew O’Callaghan notices two trends: “Firstly, there is a swathe of older cheesemakers bowing out of the industry; the second trend is new, young cheesemakers who are no longer making traditional British territorial cheeses but cheeses more like those on the Continent. As a result, traditional cheeses are increasingly being made by the larger producers and the bespoke, Continental-style by the small newcomers.”

London-based retailers such as Paxton & Whitfield and Neal’s Yard Dairy have long flown the flag for traditional and artisanal British cheeses, battling against the supermarket behemoths that peddle what Roger Longman of White Lake Cheese has described as “bastardised” products.

Best Christmas cheeseboard

A selection of Neal’s Yard Dairy’s cheeses at its Borough Market shop in south-east London.

London Farmers’ Markets organised this year’s Cheese Street festival in Islington that, acting like a microcosm of the industry, featured mainly smaller, artisan operations. Hungarian Julianna Sedli makes Reblochon-style Baronet from organic, pasteurised milk from the Jersey herd on the Neston Park estate in Wiltshire. She has found the washed-rind cheese is well received, though notes that some people are stuck in their ways. “There are some traditional types who will try it and like it but will still stick with their Cheddar.”

There was even an urban artisan cheesemaker at Cheese Street: Tottenham-based, award-winning Wildes Cheese (the name being a portmanteau of its founders’, Philip Wilton and Keith Sides). Rather than trying to mimic a cheese they liked, Wilton wanted to experiment. “There’s no point in copying Cheddar because there are so many excellent Cheddar makers already out there,” he reasons. Sourcing their milk from a dairy farm in Rye, East Sussex, they use pasteurised but unhomogenised milk and sell their varying, eight-strong range of cheeses through markets and fairs, and supply places such as The Savoy, the Tower of London and Middle Temple.

Wilton acknowledges the “financial craziness” of their venture. “Cheesemaking is a slow process. It sits around smelling for a long time – a bit like a teenager – and we’re doing it in one of the most expensive cities in the world.” However, he is infectious in his enjoyment of cheese. “I will try them all – you’re a long time dead. Eat the good stuff.”

Best Christmas cheeseboard

Stilton, a stalwart of the festive cheeseboard.

Wilton has tapped into a burgeoning insistence on authenticity and provenance; nationwide we have been enjoying the rise of craft breweries, organic butchers, artisan bakers and independent wine shops, so why should cheese be any different? Longman has noticed that people “have started to realise that quality food is worth paying for. It’s better to buy something that’s perhaps a little bit more expensive and less of it.”

He’s optimistic about Brexit, too, reasoning that import duties on foreign cheeses will encourage the growth of the British cheese industry.

This is, of course, great for producers and retailers of fine cheese but the growth of artisan cheese seems to have come at a price. Garyth Stone, managing director at global investment bank Houlihan Lokey, warns that, “artisan cheese is growing faster than the overall cheese market, while the Cheddar market is fairly flat”. And he’s not optimistic about the impact of Brexit, fearing that a combination of export tariffs and a fear of food inflation will mean the government will want to keep food cheap – which isn’t great news for farmers.

BRITISH TERRITORIALS

Concerns about the consequences for traditional cheeses are borne out by David Lockwood, director at Neal’s Yard Dairy. Having worked with British cheese since 1991, he compares how buying habits have changed. “We sold mainly British territorial cheeses. People would come in week after week and buy a pound or two of the same cheese. Now, people are buying a much wider range of cheeses but more of those in the Continental style.” This is particularly pronounced at this time of year, he says. “People used to come in and buy one or two big lumps of cheese for Christmas. Now they’ll buy eight or more. It’s great to watch but I fear the traditional British style of cheese is being undervalued by the public.”

Best Christmas cheeseboard

This year’s Artisan Cheese Fair in Melton Mowbray showcased cheeses from 69 makers.

Lockwood lays the blame for this very squarely at the supermarkets’ doors. “For a very long time not-great versions of British territorials were offered in supermarkets at very low prices. My dream is to see them grab the public again.” He believes the way to do that is to “get the cheese into people’s mouths at room temperature because that’s when the cheese will shine”. This can be achieved by “paying attention to what the cheese is saying”.

Acknowledging that not everyone has a cool cellar in which to store their groaning festive cheeseboard, he recommends leaving it out on a chopping board with a Pyrex dish over it in a cool house. “If it gets sweaty, put it in the fridge. If it’s drying, wrap it up. Cheese is your friend and will tell you what it wants.”

Lockwood himself will be enjoying a range of mainly British territorials come Christmas Day but the Paxton & Whitfield Field selection sees a mix of both these and artisan newcomers. Our festive fromagerie doesn’t need to ring out the old territorials in favour of the new arrivals, they can coexist in Yuletide harmony. God bless them, every one.

A PLACE ON THE CHEESEBOARD

Britain’s Young Cheesemonger of the Year 2017 is employed by the country’s oldest. Andrew Van Kralingen, who works for 220-year-old Paxton & Whitfield, has created a festive cheeseboard to inspire readers of The Field this Christmas. To accompany his suggestions, Patrick Schmitt, Master of Wine and editor-in-chief of The Drinks Business, has provided pairing suggestions.

Best Christmas cheeseboard

Andrew Van Kralingen in the London shop of Paxton & Whitfield.

Rollright  (£44/kg)
This relative newcomer, first produced in 2015, is made by David Jowett, ex-Paxton & Whitfield, at King Stone Dairy in the Cotswolds using a traditional rennet and milk from a 120-strong herd, comprised of nine breeds of cow, 70% of which have Brown Swiss in them. Jowett believes that this combination creates a well-balanced, high-quality milk. Being spruce wrapped allows the flavour to mature and makes it less oozy.

With a similar taste to Reblochon, why not pair it with wine from that area, too? Increasingly favoured by trendsetting sommeliers, the Jura offers both excellent Chardonnay and a vin jaune (yellow wine); the nutty and baked-apple flavours make for an interesting match. If you want something sweet, a Chenin Blanc from Vouvray would work brilliantly – look for demi-sec, moelleux or doux on the label.

Stilton PDO (£26/kg) 
This Cropwell Bishop Stilton from Nottinghamshire is “the quintessential British cheese” because it has been matured for between 11 and 14 weeks, meaning the cows have been grazing on great pastures over a long, dry summer. The bitterness some people associate with Stilton only occurs when it is too young or too mature. As it matures, the cheese gains a creamy, mellow flavour with a buttery richness. Stilton is a pasteurised, cows’-milk cheese and the strength of the flavour should not be overpowering but have a pleasant, herby tang. Paxton & Whitfield sells six tonnes of Stilton over the festive period.

Port is the obvious choice, the richness and sweetness capable of taking on the demanding salty/savoury/creamy character of Stilton. Go for a vintage style: ’80, ’83 and ’85 are drinking well and good value. If you’re daunted by a fortified wine, try something lighter but soft and ripe, such as a Zinfandel from California. Ridge Vineyards is a particularly good exponent, with 2012 and 2013 available and excellent. If you want a white, stick to a Sauternes.

Best Christmas cheeseboard

The cheese selection recommended for Field readers this Christmas.

Appleby’s Cheshire (£25/kg)
An artisan cheese made using a traditional recipe, with unpasteurised milk from cows that have grazed on Cheshire/Shropshire pastures, the cheese is made at Hawkstone Abbey Farm, Shropshire, and left to mature for up to six months. It has a nice, sweet flavour that is due to the quality of the milk. Paxton & Whitfield points out that before the Second World War, Cheshire accounted for 60% of cheese sold in the UK but was overtaken by Cheddar in the 1960s as it was more suited to supermarket pre-packaging. Today, Appleby’s is the only remaining producer in the UK of calico-bound traditional Cheshire using its own unpasteurised milk.

This is the most challenging to match: crumbly, strongly flavoured and rather tangy, it demands a lot from a wine. The raisiny unctuousness and citrus freshness of a Tokaji Aszú (5 Puttonyos or above) would complement it but better still would be a Madeira. A 15-year-old Verdelho from Henriques & Henriques, with its caramelised aromas, warming spirit and tangy grapefruit finish, would be excellent. Or a sweeter Bual of the same age and from the same producer would give you a little less fieriness.

Montgomery Cheddar (£27/kg)
The quintessential English Cheddar, described by Jamie Montgomery as “a champion of British cheese”. The business was founded by his maternal grandfather and he still uses the same starter cultures that his family used more than 70 years ago. It is made in Somerset, the original home of Cheddar cheese (indeed, before the First World War there were around 400 Cheddar makers there), where the damp climate results in lush pastures. “It’s good grass-growing country,” Montgomery explains, “because it’s west-facing and gets plenty of summer rain.” He uses unpasteurised milk from his 200 Freesian cows and produces around 100 tonnes per annum. Bound in cloth, which allows it to breathe and creates a natural maturation, it is then left to mature for a minimum of 11 months. Drier than many other traditional Cheddars, with a distinct crumbly and crunchy bite.

A ripe, barrel-aged white, such as a great Chardonnay from Burgundy or California (if you want something a bit richer) would stand up to the strong, nutty flavours and mouth-coating texture of this Cheddar. An older vintage of Champagne, with toast and honey flavours, would pair brilliantly, too. Pol Roger reigns here, particularly with its rare and sought-after blanc de blancs. If you can lay your hands on the 2002 vintage, it’s outstanding. But if you insist on something still and red, an aged Rioja would work well.

Best Christmas cheeseboard.

The writer sampling the cheese selection.

Pavé Cobble (£9.75/200g)
Supreme Champion at the British Cheese Awards 2017, this thermised sheep’s-milk cheese may look like a goat’s cheese but tastes very different. There’s none of the harsh acidity that can be typical of goat’s cheese, it has a grassy, well-balanced flavour. Produced by White Lake Cheese in Somerset, the name was inspired by the spring classic bike races held on the cobbled roads in Belgium and northern France. Indeed, Roger Longman, the cheesemonger, is such an enthusiastic cyclist that around half his staff are sourced from the local cycling club.

This pairs best with white wines made from Sauvignon Blanc and the best expression of this grape comes from Bordeaux, particularly Pessac-Léognan, whence concentrated, barrel-fermented blends would marry with this cheese beautifully. You could happily replace a Sauvignon with Bacchus, a grape that ripens earlier and is therefore suitable for English climes. Chapel Down’s offering from its Tenterden Estate in Kent would certainly do the job.