Winston Churchill once claimed, “a gentleman only buys his cheese at Paxton & Whitfield”. The Royal Warrant holder (in 1850 it became the appointed cheesemonger to Queen Victoria) has been a Jermyn Street fixture for over 181 years, with its cart-stall-history extending even further to 1742.
Hero Hirsch – the manager of the institution’s Jermyn Street location – is a fan of the ubiquitous festive smorgasbord. “Creating the perfect Christmas cheeseboard for guests to enjoy is a really fun exercise. There a just a few rules that you need to think about to create a great selection,” the fromager says.
“The first thing to do is to decide how much cheese you’re going to serve. Approximately 100 grams per person would be good for a cheeseboard at the end of the meal,” Hero suggests, “If you are looking to create a cheeseboard as part of a Christmas meal I’d suggest giving each person about 100g to 125g of cheese, so for six people around 750g of cheese in total is a good amount. If you are looking for a festive supper, then I’d give each person 150g each.”
“Once you’ve decided how many cheeses you’re going to serve, pick some from different categories so soft, bloomy rinded cheese, fresh cheese, blue, washed rind, hard territorial cheeses and hard cheeses. The most classic example of a three cheese board would be a brie, a cheddar and a stilton, so one from the three categories. I’d always recommend going for this type of combination as it gives you a good selection but perhaps be more adventurous in the cheeses you select. Ultimately, what we’re looking to achieve is the right balance of flavours so nothing to strong. If one of the cheeses is strong, the other two need to be strong enough that they’re not overpowered.”
“If you’re looking to put a cheeseboard together, I would normally recommend to customer’s to have a variety of styles so if they were going for three, maybe a hard, a soft and a blue cheese; if they want four cheeses, maybe a goat as well; and if they’re looking for five cheeses, maybe a washed rind. I’d suggest that you create a cheeseboard with three or four cheeses. More than that and it’s too much for the palate to enjoy.”
“I always think that it is a good idea to look at what other food you are serving for the meal. Will the food served prior to the cheese course be heavy in flavours? If so then think about selecting cheeses that have a stronger flavour so that they complement preceding courses. The cheese course should be a continuation of flavours so that your guests can really enjoy it.”
Hero’s winter cheese suggestions: Mont d’Or, Stilton, Extra Mature (18 month+) artisan Cheddars (Montgomery, Westcombe, Keens), Chevrotin des Aravis, Comte, Epoisses and Gruyere.
Where to buy
For artisan cheeses (in the best possible condition) and equally great advice, Hero reveals that she would “always recommend going to a good cheesemonger.” Visiting a cheesemonger not only makes the experience all the more enjoyable and informative, but it will undoubtedly lead to you choosing the best cheeses for your menu. The art of choosing and combining the right cheeses is as nuanced as that of a fine wine – get it right with the help of seasoned professionals. Discuss your menu with them and allow them to make suggestions based on your food choices and personal preferences. “It’s a great experience,” Hero assures.
“As well as the cheese it’s also important to think about what to enjoy with them”, Hero explains. “A good biscuit, cracker or well made bread helps to complement cheeses, as do chutneys, fruit confits and dried fruits,” although she warns against overloading the cheeseboard with accompaniments (“Less is more in this area”).
When it comes to wine selection, Hero highlights three deciding factors: provenance, flavour matches or all rounder.
Provenance deals with the common background of the cheese and wine. If your cheeseboard will be French, choosing wines from the corresponding areas makes a lot of sense and gives your selection a harmonious story.
Flavour matches are also important. Hero explains, “With Blue cheeses you can actually enjoy a sweet wine with them – for example, the French drink Sauternes with Roquefort.” Your local cheesemonger will be able to assist with specific flavour matches.
And lastly, find an all rounder for a cheeseboard. Hero says, “a light red wine is a good option or even a heavier white wine. I often think that a white Burgundy is a good wine to serve with a selection of cheeses as it has good flavour [and] body that won’t dominate the palate.”
Another advantage of shopping from a local cheesemonger is that they will wrap your cheeses in waxed paper which allows them to breathe. Once home, store in a cold room or, preferably, the bottom of a fridge.
At serving time, Hero suggests, “When you’re ready to serve your cheese, take the pieces out of the fridge approximately [twenty minutes to a] half an hour beforehand – the flavours will be more pronounced at room temperature.”
Paxton & Whitfield also recommends buying whole wheels or large wedges at Christmastime because they will keep better over the festive period than smaller pieces which tend to dry out. Try to keep the cheese in its original packaging too.