Creating an impressive cheeseboard is simple. Just pick four or five cheeses of contrasting strengths and textures, and assemble with other bits and bobs. The cheeseboard I always assemble, whether for students at my cookery school or my friends on a Friday night, rarely changes. I may add the occasional special guest cheese, but the main cast remains unchanged.
The four cheeses I always opt for are:
St Agur or Roquefort
Both are fairly strong and salty blues, but the St Agur is a touch softer and finer than the rugged, punchy Roquefort. Normally I’d opt for the Roquefort, but I do have an incurable weakness for St Agur.
This is a firm cheese, but with a fluffy, slightly crumbly creaminess. Its flavour is nutty and meaty. It makes for the best cheese on toast, especially if you rub the toasted bread with a cut garlic clove before adding the cheese and melting – a speciality from my dad that I enjoyed in my childhood.
Epoisses de Bourgogne
This pasty, cow’s milk cheese is so soft that if served on warm days, it is best scooped up with a spoon. It is washed in brandy as it matures, and its taste is strong, slightly salty, earthy and nutty. It’s pungent and complex, for sure, and one of my all-time favourites.
In its softness this is similar to Brie and Epoisses, but not at all soft enough to scoop up with a spoon. I find this to be the cheese with the split personality in both texture and flavour: it has an outer creaminess, then a firmer, mealy inside. Its flavour is soft, gentle and creamy, but beneath that stillness lurks a raw tanginess.
These are all cow’s milk cheeses, so sometimes I’ll add a slice of British Rosary goat’s cheese, which isn’t overly strong, but has a welcome acidic creaminess.
When it comes to accompaniments, I like to go perhaps a little too far. Small, perfumed figs are a must, as are radishes and cornichon gherkins, which supply their sharpness to cut through all of that cream. Nuts are essential: sometimes pecans, sometimes walnuts, but mostly I like the sweet, toasted almond-extract flavour of Marcona almonds. And if my cheeseboard doesn’t contain charcuterie, then I’m not happy; I like prosciutto, bresaola, and a peppery sausage style slice. Baby gem lettuce, black grapes and pear slices add colour, texture and refreshing variety. Sometimes I’ll serve great hunks of sourdough, or sometimes crackers – I like the Peter’s Yard selection box: the charcoal and rye sourdough crispbreads are the best.
Assembling the Cheeseboard
I have a huge wooden board with deep sides that you could say I stole (I prefer to say rescued) from my parents. They found it at some antiques market and had it propped up against the wall in the kitchen, never used.
The almonds, olives, cornichons and crackers I put into individual pots and dot those on the board. The temptation is to do this symmetrically but that looks naff, so go against any impulses for evenness. I then slice the baby gems in half along the length, and put them here and there, then I add the cheeses. Any larger gaps can be filled in with enticing bundles of the charcuterie. To finish the masterpiece, everything is brought together with the purples and blacks of the figs, radishes and grapes. Slices of pears finish it all off beautifully.