What would a life be without small, simple pleasures? And I am not talking about appropriating epicurean lifestyle, consisting mostly (if not only) of pleasurable encounters; I am talking about merely stopping sometimes and appreciating little things in life: a beautiful sunrise, the smell of freshly brewed coffee in the morning, the first snow, or the simple, everyday flavours which – when treated with a bit of love and attention – can truly shine. in fact, i am a firm believer that it is precisely these everyday, domesticated flavours that are the highlights of our lives.
Take cheese, for instance. such a down to earth, ubiquitous staple, brought to the very definition of an anti-pleasurable and not very food-like matter by fast food chains. Or should the ‘cheese’ adorning rather ambiguous quality cheeseburgers be still called ‘cheese’? Or is the plasticky and industrial version of this staple a grotesque shadow of the original? What is the original? Does cheese have to a be super-expensive, gourmet commodity, preferably bought in a high-end or hipster shop in Paris to be worth our attention?
I am not saying here that French cheeses are overrated. They are most certainly not. The variety of cheese in France is overwhelming – France has long been and (I think) long will be a Mecca for every cheese lover out there. To love cheese and to never even think about visiting France is something of a discrepancy.
I remember my first time in France, almost five years ago, when I was still a fledgling and hugely unexperienced food appreciator. That trip, on which I spent most of the time with my friends who were kind enough to introduce me to the beautiful town of Tours and its surroundings, was mostly about the French patisserie. I was not yet ready to embark on a journey which would be defined by the cheese (over) indulgence. I was still rather not keen to devour mature cheese, as the sight of mould on the rind was rather off-putting and not at all encouraging. My next few trips to France though, would have been incomplete without devouring a fair amount of cheese, most of which was in different states of rot; with the smell that reminds more of an old sock than something extraordinarily delicious.
I was sold to the world of cheese, forever committed to its irresistible flavours, textures and smells.
Nonetheless, France is not the only place on Earth where great and unique cheese can be found. One of my favourite cheese is Polish smoked mountain cheese, called oscypek, made with sheep’s milk in the region of Tatra Mountains (in Poland and Slovakia). Who would have thought that Poland can produce a cheese of such distinct flavour (as a lover of all things smoked I find this cheese highly addictive), and texture, beautifully creaky and squeaky while eaten at room temperature, and smooth and velvety when grilled. Oh, the joys of Polish winters flavoured with grilled oscypek eaten with cranberry preserve!
It has become a tradition now: bringing a cheese souvenir from almost every trip. Be it a trip somewhere in Europe, or within the UK. UK has a rather interesting cheese scene, too, of which I was hugely unaware for my first three years here. Once I fell in love with cheese on my second trip to France, cheese meant no more, no less, but a camembert to me. I wouldn’t even consider trying something new, as the camembert’s silky goodness has kept me a true and faithful follower for years. It wasn’t until last year, when I discovered the world of British cheeseboards. A cheeseboard in the UK is often served at the end of a meal instead of, or following, dessert. Somehow, I couldn’t get my head around the idea of having cheese instead of something sweet after a meal. But, the ‘once tried forever loved’ rule worked here, too.
The cheeseboard, at least according to The Guardian is an absolute must during Christmas time in the UK, right on the pedestal with sherry and turkey. And, as there are about 700 varieties of cheese in the UK, the combinations for a cheeseboard are almost endless. From creamy Cheddar, through distinctly coloured Red Leicester, to rather rich Stilton – there are many options to choose from, with the ability to satisfy even the most picky eater.
What makes a great cheeseboard then? The rules are similar to those for creating a good menu: we need a variety of flavours, textures, colours and accompaniments. The classic cheeseboard found on the menu of many country pubs in the UK consists of 2-3 or more varieties of cheese (sometimes you can choose the cheese yourself), some accompaniments (celery sticks, olives, walnuts), breads or crackers and some sort of preserve, jam or chutney to go with it all. As I am writing these words, my mouth waters on the memory of the cheeseboard I had a while ago in The Lamb Inn pub in Rusper. So good.
Around Christmas, UK’s supermarkets are trying to outdo themselves in offering the best ready-to-buy cheeseboards, varying not only in the cheese selection, but also in aesthetics, some of them looking very appealing indeed and not superkarket-y at all. Nevertheless, the choice of cheese does not have to depend on the trip to the supermarket, as there are many independent, artisanal cheese makers in the UK, whose products are not only amazingly delicious, but also very fresh, organic and seasonal. It is always worth checking what’s available around us, as we might discover that there is a small cheese farm or producer making cheese which can (quite possibly) take our breathe away. Who knows where a little research can take us?
My cheeseboard consisted of cheese souvenirs, which I either acquired myself or was kindly given by friends and family. It was made up of few cheeses from Holland (brought with us from our trip to Netherlands in November), a cheese from Wales given to me by Pauline and Steve, a souvenir from their recent trip, and my forever dear camembert, bought in the local supermarket. I am writing these words, munching on Quality Street chocolates (another very British, very Christmassy staple), and remembering all the cheese I have eaten this year. And I think to myself: may the art of cheesemaking never die!
CHEESEBOARD, AN ODE TO CHEESE
Creating a good cheeseboard is not a rocket science, really. All it takes is to have an idea, a concept, of how to create something that’s not only delicious but also aesthetically pleasing. I gathered some basic rules which I think are useful for any cheeseboard first-timer.
How to create a cheeseboard
1. Take time to select your cheeses. And although the easy option of sourcing your cheese in the closest supermarket is tempting, it is worth going an extra mile to find good quality, artisanal cheese. And no, it doesn’t have to have an astronomical price to taste great. My cheeseboard consisted of:
Extra mature cheddar from Snowdonia, Wales
Gouda with walnuts from Clara Maria cheese farm in Amstelveen, Netherlands
Smoked gouda bought in the town of Gouda, Netherlands
French camembert, added for the contrast of textures.
2. Choose a variety of cheeses. When I say variety, I don’t only mean flavours, but also textures, shapes, colours, milk sources and level of maturity. Traditionally, the cheese should be presented on a cheeseboard in a clockwise manner: from soft to firm. But, as I value individuality, I chose not to follow tradition.
3. Add accompaniments: sweet, salty or both. I went for walnuts, super delicious ones, given to me by my grandparents, and red grapes.
4. Add some crackers and/or bread. I opted for crackers as most of my cheese was rather firm, and so I thought it would be easier to have it with a crunchy cracker than soft bread.
5. Add an extra touch: jam, chutney, spread, preserve. I went for this chilli jam from Wales.
These are just overall directions rather than a specific recipe. The combinations are endless and can be easily adjusted to your own personal preferences, flavour and aesthetic wise. You can use fresh figs, dried apricots, olives, you can add some cold cuts (yes, meats!), bread, chutneys, anything you find goes well with cheese. And wine, of course. But here I’m afraid, you’re on your own, as I am no expert in wine pairing.
One more thing: let your cheese breathe! That is, take it out of the fridge a while before planned consumption. That will allow its flavours to develop properly. Cold cheese ain’t tasting good, my friend. Let it rest.
Happy indulging! Hope your Christmas will be as dreamy and adventurous as your cheeseboards. Have fun, people. Enjoy life a little X