Cheese is served in many households every week of the year, but it can elevate holiday menus beyond the ordinary.
Cheese is a great party food and easy to eat. Grab it with a toothpick, spread some on a cracker, lay a sliver on a slice of pear and pop it in your mouth. All a host needs do is lay out a stack of small plates and napkins when serving cheese at a gathering.
While many foods are finicky about temperature – no good if not served steaming hot or icy cold – cheese is at its best served at room temperature. But, its time at room temperature does need to be limited. Refrigerated storage is required, but it can be served in a leisurely way, passed once and then perched on a table so that guests can dip in at will.
Cheese is both familiar and exotic. While we might have cheddar or mozzarella on hand most of the time, festive occasions are perfect times for serving a variety of quality cheeses.
You can honour traditions when making a selection, or go off script and create your own favourite pairings. Instead of picking an unfamiliar cheese, you can choose the very best of a variety that you love to eat every day, savouring the flavour and texture of quality.
For example, if you like cheddar, you might select Avonlea clothbound cheddar or another of the top-quality cheddars produced locally.
Cheese is versatile; you can find one to complement just about any other food or beverage, sweet or savoury. Think of any occasion when you’re serving special food to family and friends and cheese will be a good addition to the menu. There are even lower fat, nondairy vegan, and lower lactose cheeses to satisfy those with dietary restrictions.
Last week I quizzed Victoria Goddard, proprietor of Charlottetown Cheese Company, on her thoughts about cheese for Christmas. We talked about some favourite cheeses, various cultural customs, how to make selections for a cheese tray and what to serve with cheese.
For Christmas brunch, one of my holiday traditions, Goddard suggests serving several styles of tasty but not-too-demanding cheeses: one soft, such as a Brie or Camembert, a cheddary one, possibly aged Gouda, or Red Leicester, and one of the milder blue cheeses, such as Saint Agur or Cambozola.
Enhance the appearance of the selection with Douanier, whose good taste and texture are complemented by the visual appeal of a horizontal line of ash running through the paste, or a piece of five-layered Saxonshires cheese.
Both English and French traditions include a cheese course with dinner. The French serve it before dessert, and the Brits finish with cheese. You can tap into the French or English traditions, serving creamy soft or washed rind French-style cheeses or sharper English Cheddars or Stiltons. Another English tradition, one that I intend to try this year, is Wensleydale with fruit cake.
Another way to approach a cheese course is to select an assortment of three or five different types of cheese. It can be fun to include an unusual type on a tray, possibly coconut Gouda or a fruited one such as cranberry Wensleydale.
For a dramatic cheese course, let a generous piece of one dramatic, beautiful cheese appear solo, maybe a slab of Saint Agur blue, or English Stilton. This works in situations where you know the selection will suit your guests’ tastes, such as family groups and gatherings of old friends.
A beautiful cheese board includes foods to accompany the cheese, such as charcuterie (smoked, cured or prepared meats such as rillettes, sausages, pates), chutneys or jellies, bread or crackers, fresh firm fruit or dried fruit.
My friend makes a lovely dish of figs stuffed with a mixture of blue cheese and asiago, topped with a drizzle of balsamic reduction. It’s beautiful and delicious.
You can be traditional or experimental when pairing cheese with drinks. Consider, when you’re planning, how tannins in certain wines pair with the flavours of particular cheeses, and remember that not only wine, but also beer, cider and even tea can pair well with cheese.
With so many varieties to choose from and ways to serve it, cheese and Christmas are a good pairing.
Margaret Prouse, a home economist, can be reached by writing her at RR#2, North Wiltshire, P.E.I., C0A 1Y0, or by email at email@example.com.