Creating your Christmas Cheese Platter With Ease and Flair
by Valerie Henbest
I don’t think anybody will disagree with the fact that there is a lot of pressure in the lead-up to Christmas.
Not that we do not know it is coming, but it seems that we have the tendency to leave a lot of things to the last minute…
For the organized ones amongst us, the quest for the perfect festive entertaining has long been sorted. For the others, including me, it can be seriously anxiety provoking…
The good news is: it doesn’t have to be!
As most Europeans, I do celebrate Christmas Eve more so than Christmas Day, but usually work that day too.
So I learned to appreciate the huge benefits of good and generous cheese platters a long time ago - True, working with cheese helps too!
So in order for you to stay calm in the face of the crazy season, here are my few simple tips to create a platter you will not only be very proud of but your family and guests will also remember and enjoy immensely. Who doesn’t like cheese?
So here we go:
Less is More
When I say generous, I do not mean creating a cheese board with dozens of cheeses. I am a firm believer in the smart choice of a serious big and delicious piece of cheese such as a big wedge of matured Cheddar, a whole Brie or Coulommiers filled with truffles or half wheel of Blue Cheese (Stilton, Gorgonzola or Roquefort).
Depending on the number of people you are entertaining, one or three beautiful pieces of cheeses will be far more efficient and enjoyable than half a dozen mediocre ones.
You also have a better opportunity to create the perfect wine or sparkling pairing and make a big deal about it!
The world of cheese is so wide and offers so many varieties, make sure you explore it as best you can. One way to do it is playing with milk types. You can use cow, goat and sheep’s milk cheeses individually. Or you can play with very interesting and more complex mixed milk cheeses. Each of them will present a very different profile and will be a source of interesting conversation in relation to the specific terroir they are coming from. Wine matching might present some interesting but valuable challenges. But it could lead you to some kind of similar terroirs exploration. Such a fun game!
Size, Shapes and Colours
Remember, visual appeal is just as important as the tasting experience itself. Do not hesitate to play with the remarkable diversity presented in the cheese world. Be creative and use a small round white mould, a pyramidal ashed chevre and a big wedge of semi-hard cheese. If you are an experienced cheese lover, go to the next level up and add a stinky washed-rind and a spicy blue. You got the idea…
Cut in advance
To make sure your cheese plate doesn’t look like a war zone too soon after your first guests arrived, cut a few pieces of each cheese a little bit in advance. Your guests can delicately pick a piece of their favourite cheese.
Whatever you decide to do with accompaniment, don’t over do it. I think crackers can go back to the cupboard on Christmas as there is a lot more to it than these useful but, let’s face it, not very exciting little biscuits. Try instead some more interesting bread – fresh baguette, thinly sliced sourdough loaf, rye and walnut (especially for blue cheese) – or some fancy Lavosh type.
Use some fresh fruits for a touch of colour and a chance for more contrast with your cheese. It is also very easy to add some festive components on your board – holly or eucalypt fine branches. Be creative and remember, the idea is to create a board that your guests should love at first sight!
Out of the fridge
Where I come from (Normandy), the cheese never used to see the fridge. Different weather I admit. So unless the outside temperature is above 40C, make sure you take all your cheeses out of the fridge at least an hour before you serve them. If it is very hot out there, reduce that time by 30 minutes. Room temperature will allow each cheese to express its full potential.
So it is Christmas after all and if you ask me, Champagne or Australian Sparkling has to be the answer for most of your questions! It is very well known that bubbles are not only festive but also a prefect complement to most cheese, cutting through their fat component with ease providing exquisite pleasure along the way.
Dessert wine can also be given a special mention, as it will contrast nicely with any Stilton or blue that you might have on your Christmas table.
I wish you all a very Happy and ‘Cheesy’ Christmas!
'Cheese Heaven' by Valerie Henbest
Let's set the record straight... I could probably live without chocolate or cakes, but I would not survive in a cheeseless world!
A world with no cheese is like a summer without mangoes or autumn without mushrooms... or as the French Philosopher Brillat-Savarin put it in 1855, "... a beauty with only one eye", I am sure you get the idea!
In Adelaide (South Australia), we are very lucky to have access to hundreds of cheeses, both from Australia and all over the world. So often, instead of taking a walk in the park or on the beach (both wonderful here too), we go and wander through the cheese stalls in the Adelaide Central Market.
We are twice as lucky, since we also have access to one of the first maturing cave of its genre in Australia, which is only one street away from the market... and believe me, entering this room has the same effect on us, as a lolly shop has on a child!
Although I am very aware of the fact that nothing can replace the sensorial impact of opening that heavy door that protects about 7 tonnes of precious cheese, I will do my best to recreate some of its qualities and features for you!
First and foremost, this room is the result of years of travelling the world and countless meetings with passionate 'affineurs' (cheese refiners/maturers). Back home, it was a matter of recreating as best as we could the natural environment cheeses are crying out for.
Ideally, we would have liked to find a real and natural cave, but realistically, at the time we created it, we knew our chances were poor.
So we had to deal with these limitations and transcend them. Thanks to Affineurs such as Hervé Mons, Denis Provent and Carlo Fiori, and our local Victorian Affineur, Richard Thomas, with all their years of experience and wisdom, our special room became operational in the middle of 2009. Since our excitement has not diminished!
The cheese is very happy in our beautiful room. You know how we know this? As soon as we open that famous heavy door, we are instantly greeted with the most amazing aromas. A mixture of earth and ammonia, spice and dust, it is vibrant and energising... it is truly alive!
The cheeses look strikingly beautiful in their variety of shapes and textures. This room is designed for semi-hard and hard cheese, the kind that has what it takes to manage a 52-day trip across the ocean from Europe to Australia. These naturally rinded cheeses have what it takes to deal with these sometimes long and rough trips. Although we do have an Intensive Care Unit where immediate 'TLC' is provided by Sam, our own Affineur, if for any reason, they look like they had a rough trip.
Sam plays a vital role in that room. Sam spent 2 weeks in France last year, studying with acclaimed French Affineur, Hervé Mons and came back with even more passion.
Every day of the working week, Sam will assess the cheese in our ‘cave’ with a loving eye and a caring hand. Sometimes, just caressing them making sure the rind looks healthy and is doing its job to protect the interior, sometimes turning them over so that the moisture content is evenly dispersed. Armed with a brush and a bucket filled with brine solution or one of our secret recipes he may brush them to keep them moist. It's definitely a work of love, and that's what you get with the cheese from our ‘cave’ at the end of this uncompromised chain.
So if like me, you'd rather wander through a maze of various colours and smells, do not hesitate to drop me a line on this blog. Who knows, I might take you with me next time, if you are nearby.
NYC by Valerie Henbest
Some folks like to get away
Take a holiday from the neighbourhood...
Last week, I landed in New York City, full of excitement and high expectations and NYC rarely disappoints!
That I love New York is an understatement... I could live there tomorrow. It's fun, it's vibrant, it’s clean and safe, with mostly friendly people everywhere. I walked Manhattan, from the Upper West Side to Battery Park, Tribeca to Little Italy, Brooklyn to Queens. As always in NYC, I was in indulgence mode, stopping at every possible food and cheese shop. This could keep me busy for quite a while!
But let's start at the beginning...
If you are in the cheese business and in NYC, Murray's Cheese has to be pretty high on your priority list. So off to Greenwich Village I go!
Murray Greenberg was a Jewish Spanish civil war veteran who opened a wholesale butter, cheese and egg shop in 1940. The shop since was then sold to an old Italian family in the1970’s before being acquired by Rob Kaufelt in 1985.
The oldest cheese shop in town now has another shop in Grand Central Terminal and a Cheese Bar in Greenwich Village. You can also find outlets in various other States.
But back to Bleeker street and thanks to the taste-anything policy, I am very quickly introduced to two of the special cheeses of the day: Winnimere from Jasper Hill and Pawlet from Consider Bardwell Farm (both from Vermont).
Developed by Matteo Kehler, Winnimere is a unique seasonal cheese, made from raw Ayshire cow's milk and washed with a lambic-style beer, brewed from the farm's own wild yeasts. Wrapped with a strip of spruce bark cut from the farm's own trees, Winnimere can be 'compared' to Vacherin Mont d'Or, and certainly has similar smooth and sweet milky flavours with a hint of woodsy aromatic depth combined with an extra yeasty component... purely divine. But unfortunately, unless our laws change, we won’t be able to get it in Australia!
Pawlet is a delectable, aged Jersey cow milk cheese, both tangy and buttery with hints of toasted hazelnuts. It is the Vermont answer to Italian Fontina, but with more of that Yankee 'je ne sais quoi'... if you know what I mean!
Later on, I will return to Murray's for one of their famous cheese classes with a little detour through 'heaven': four underground maturing rooms situated underneath their shop!
Introducing Section 28 Artisan Cheese
Section28 Artisan Cheeses is a new small cheese making business started by Kym Masters. It has been meticulously planned at every stage with clear goals for development into the future. He is dedicated to achieving absolute excellence in all areas of the business from the raw materials used and production processes to the way it is presented to the consumer. His aim is to produce hard and semi-hard artisan cheeses that quintessentially capture the local terroir.
Our first meeting with Kym came as a result of courses run by the Australian Cheese Making Academy of Australia (ACMAA) at Regency Park. He was clearly passionate about creating products of the highest possible quality with the aim to create distinctly Australian cheese using techniques perfected by generations of European cheese makers.
He had been to France to learn from Master Craftsmen experienced in making traditional mountain style cheese. In particular, he visited the Coopérative de Grande Rivière, located in a tiny hamlet just off one of the main country roads that cut across the mountains from Dijon to Geneva. There the Coopérative specialised in the production of Comté and Morbier. It is also one of the few coopératives that produce, age and sell the cheese, all on the same premises. The perfect training ground.
On his return, he began by conducting trials of products that he planned to make his signature cheeses. We were lucky enough to have the opportunity to see the evolution through a series of tastings that were held to assess ways of improving each batch. It has been a joy to watch the development and the constant improvement of each batch over many months.
At the same time he found a source of the very best milk in the Adelaide Hills and then a property nearby which has become his base. He has started by using two shipping containers. One is fitted out for the cheese making processes and the other as a maturing room with plans to extend into a third container as the need arises.
We had the opportunity to take a trial wheel that was produced in July 2014 and look after it in our own beautiful maturing room, where it lived for over a year with other similar style cheeses from all over the world. Last week (early November 2015) we sat down with Kym to taste this Monforte trial wheel, which had been aged for a total of 15 months. The result was better than we had anticipated, but now it is a waiting game. The first six month old wheels have arrived and we will select some to mature on for a further 6-9 months for sale at 12-15 months of age. These wheels will be tended lovingly every week in our maturing room, to ensure the best possible development of flavour while retaining the moist texture of this cheese. Patience is required but it will definitely be worth the wait. We will let you know when the first aged wheel is ready to go.
Production for sale began in earnest in May 2015 and Monforte and Mont Priscilla have now been released. Mont Priscilla is matured for five months and the Monforte for six months. Plans are now underway for the next addition to the range. Today we have added these two beautiful new cheese to our range on the website so you can all experience these exciting new Adelaide Hills Cheeses from Section 28.
Did you say Terroir?
Terroir is a word that is likely to come up once or twice in conversations if you are hanging around 'foodie' people for long enough.
Terroir, as you may know, is a French word that comes from Terre (land). It is defined by the flavours and aromas unique to the Terroir.
We appreciate this concept clearly with wine. You only have to think Burgundy or Champagne and straight away you expect to taste the area more than the varietals that are used in these areas.
Similar to wine, cheese is also influenced by terroir and the unique characteristics connected to the place where it is made. After all, a cheese made in a particular place will inherit distinct characteristics (organoleptic and others) connected to the particular soil, breed of animal, climate, culture and farming practices. Of course, you need to add the cheesemakers' skills and you will end up with the true 'essence' of the cheese. But terroir is not only about land, but also about the men and women working that land and their inherited culture.
Milk also changes seasonally due to variation of feed: fresh grasses of spring, flowers and herbs of summer – or silage and dry hay in winter. Therefore, a winter cheese will inherit different qualities from a summer one. You to decide which one you prefer.
Australia might not have as much history as Europe in the dairy industry but it is pretty clear we do have good terroir. For that reason, it seems that the biggest mistake would be to copy what the Europeans have been doing for centuries. We can copy a style, of course, but let's make sure we take full advantage of the incredibly rich resources we do have here in Australia.
Blessed are the cheesemakers! Blessed is the land and the environment in which they work.
Tasmanian Trip April 2016 Ashgrove Cheese, Elizabeth Town, Tasmania
I was lucky enough, over 20 years ago, to get a tour of this cheese company in its infancy. On that occasion when I mentioned a special interest in cheese, one of the two brothers who founded this company, Michael Bennett, was happy to show me around. The factory was quite small and the shop reasonably new. It has grown and changed a great deal since then and now involves another generation of the Bennett family.
This time I was met by Anne Bennett who took me on a fabulous tour, starting with the farm. Anne is the daughter of the other founding brother, John Bennett.
First stop was the top paddock with an amazing 360° view.
Anne explained the importance of this most crucial part of the cheese making process. There has been constant work done to improve the farm over the years, including irrigation which has helped them get through what has been a tough drought year in Tassie. The herds are now entirely grass fed, eliminating the need for silage. The mix of breeds has also evolved and now it is Holstein, Jersey and Friesian cows that graze over the pastures to provide their top quality milk.
We toured around the extensive farm to visit the three herds and their rotary dairies. Having three separate herds gives Ashgrove the ability to blend milks as needed to produce the best cheese during any seasonal variations in the milk. We ended the farm tour at the calf sheds – Ashgrove keep all the calves, no matter the gender. Each pen houses calves of similar ages so they all have lots of friends to play with and they were frolicking around having a great time. They are all very well cared for with the girls eventually joining the milking herd.
Then it was off to meet the lovely people behind the scenes that make a place like this tick, from the delivery staff, admin and finance folk, calf carers, cheese sellers, logistics gurus and of course, the cheese makers. Next stop was the factory itself, so it was time to scrub up and don hairnets, dustcoat and boots. I was very privileged to get a special tour of the cheese making area and was in time to see the cheddar curds being cut into blocks.
In the next room, vintage cheddars were being waxed and cloth cheddars were being selected for the maturing room. Every wheel is tasted to ensure quality and consistency.
Final stop was the shop and cafe area. A milk shake was the order of the day before some cheese tasting of course. This area is open to the public daily and is a very popular spot.