Words: Jocelyn Doyle
Let’s be honest here. Christmas has a lot of perks attached, and having a socially-acceptable excuse to be the absolute epitome of gluttony is certainly one of them. Every house has its own foodie traditions, but it’s safe to say that a lot of Irish houses play home to fancy cheeseboards at this time of year.
There are hundreds, if not thousands of amazing cheeses out there in the world, just dying to be sampled and savoured. It’s Christmas though, and there’s no better time to stay close to home. With this in mind, we’ve put together some suggestions for a selection of Irish cheeses, perfect for nibbling on late into the evening when you’re too full from dinner to move, but – inexplicably – you still have room for cheese.
There are a few things to consider when you’re designing your perfect cheeseboard. What you’re going for is a reasonably varied selection to keep it interesting, including a few different types of milk (cow, sheep, goat or buffalo) as well as different textures, ranging from hard and crumbly right up to soft and oozy. There’s no better place in town to shop for cheese than Sheridans Cheesemongers, although you’ll also find some good stuff in Fallon & Byrne or Listons of Camden Street.
Here’s a set of rough guidelines as to what you might like to include, although the end result is of course up to you: once you’ve read the rules, feel free to break any and all of them. It is your Christmas cheeseboard, after all.
- Let’s start with a hard cheese, a well-aged beauty with a crumbly texture and crunchy, crystallised salt crystals. For this, you really won’t do better than a decent slab of Coolea Extra Mature; the older this cheese gets, the better it tastes, with salty crystals that’ll make your mouth water like crazy, and deep toffee flavours that last forever. A good artisan Irish cheddar is a predictable but classic choice, and Mount Callan with its buttery notes is ideal. Sliabh na mBán is an organic Irish cheddar from The Little Milk Company: newly launched in May this year, it’s an apt addition to any 2013 cheeseboard. Opt for the mature (aged 9-14 months) or the vintage (14 months up) varieties, as both are made from Irish raw milk and aged to perfection. You might also consider Beal Organic or Coolattin Cheddar, both excellent Irish products.
- Now you want a soft one to complement that, something creamy and ripe, maybe like the mild Wicklow Baun. If you want something a little stronger, Cooleeney is a fantastic Irish alternative to the usual Camemberts and Bries, with deep, earthy mushroom scents lingering under fresh cream and butter. Cooleeney’s Breda Maher also makes a wonderful bloomy rind goats’ cheese called Gortnamona, a Camembert-style effort with a pale, soft paste, as well as the golden and runny-when-ripe Tipperary Brie.
- At this stage, you might add in a semi-soft cheese to balance things out. A decent goats’ log would be a great call: try St. Tola, an impressive organic goats’ cheese in which you can taste the salty sea air of the blustery west coast where Siobhán Ní Ghairbhith’s goats are pastured. You could also have a look at Gubbeen, Durrus, Ardrahan or the classic Milleens, the trailblazer for all modern Irish farmhouse cheeses. Milleens is a beautiful creamy cheese with earthy, farmyard undertones.
- It’s time to choose a blue cheese. The delicious Crozier Blue is an interesting alternative to our famous Cashel Blue; produced by the same family, it uses sheeps’ milk rather than cows’ for a sweetly pungent flavour. John Hempenstall’s Wicklow Blue is soft and intensely creamy while, for the more adventurous, the buttery Bellingham Blue packs a deep, pungent blue punch.
- Now that your cheeseboard is looking more complete, go crazy and throw in a wild card, something a bit different to finish it off. Corleggy is a good example of this, funky, strong and sharp in its rustic rind, or you could add a smoked cheese, which we have no shortage of here in Ireland; we recommend Smoked Gubbeen. This is also where you can pop in a goats’ or sheeps’ milk cheese if there isn’t one on the board already: perhaps Killeen, a semi-hard goats’ cheese with a smooth, vaguely sweet flavour. If you’re a fan of mozzarella, grab a ball of the unbelievable Toonsbridge Dairy buffalo milk beauty; made in Cork from Ireland’s only herd of water buffalo, the cheese is loose in texture and gently lactic in flavour, making it a serious rival to the traditional Italian mozzarella.
Once you’ve done your shopping, it’s time to arrange your cheeses on a plate, board or platter: whatever you have in the depths of your kitchen, and whatever looks pretty. Ideally the cheeses you’ve chosen will have contrasting shapes, making your board a mini piece of art with different wheels, wedges, and logs.
The size of your cheeseboard is completely up to you and your budget restraints, and the above categories are of course only guidelines. That said, choosing three different cheeses is probably the bare minimum; also, this might sound fussy, but it’s a good idea to have an odd number of cheeses where possible. (It’s been scientifically proven that odd numbers are more pleasing to the human eye, probably because of their prevalence in nature; you may never have noticed, but leaves and petals never grow in even numbers.) In any case, your cheeseboard will look more balanced if you have three, five or seven cheeses.
Now for the trimmings. As far as crackers go, most people like some sort of vessel for their cheese, so pick up a packet or two of whatever takes your fancy: Sheridans do a fantastic range of crackers for cheese. (However, if you happen to be more of a cheese-in-fingers, fingers-to-mouth kind of person, we don’t judge.) Fruit is definitely optional, but it can look über-pretty if you’re out to impress. Apples and grapes are the classics, but pears are a great addition, and never underestimate how unbelievable sweet, ripe figs taste with salty cheese. Some people like olives with their cheese, while sun-dried tomatoes, pickles, or cured meats like proscuitto are also happy additions.
A good chutney is a standard accompaniment. Try Sheridans own chutney or one of the lovely Janet’s Country Fayre range. Aside from chunky chutneys, a little dish of honey is good with soft goats cheeses, or an aged Cheddar; a nice black cherry or cranberry jam will be perfect with soft bloomy-rind cheeses. It probably goes without saying that you’ll need a bottle of wine or a nice ruby port to accompany your cheesy feast.
Now you’ve got everything sorted, your cheeseboard looks interesting, classy, and varied. It’s important to let the cheeses out of the fridge for at least an hour before you plan on inducing your cheese coma, so that they have time to come to room temperature and really show off their flavours. After that, it’s time for the most important part. Open your wine, get your knives and plates out, and dig right in. If your family is anything like ours, give it half an hour, and then listen to a satisfied chorus of “Ohhh, I’m so full,” while everyone rubs their bellies with one hand, and keeps eating with the other.