Selecting cheeses for a cheese board

Presumably a lot has been written about cheese. I wouldn’t know, I’ve never read anything on the subject, which is slightly surprising given how much I love the stuff. So this is my self-taught soliloquy on choosing cheeses for a cheese board. Surprising what you can learn from chatting to cheesemongers and sampling hundreds of cheeses over the years.

Now, I certainly don’t have a cheese course with every meal, oh no. If I detect from the menu that I’m going to be served three lumps of something entirely predictable (brie, stilton and cheshire for example) then I generally look for some pudding instead. Even if they’ve picked good makers and kept them well, I can buy and keep perfectly good lumps of these at home. Cheese is the one course in a restaurant where I can honestly say that I could (often) do it better myself. So, I only bother with the cheese course if I know that I’m going to be presented with a creaky little trolley crammed to bursting with a wide-ranging selection of cheeses that I can spend a happy five minutes cooing over, asking the waiter about, and generally reducing my dining companions to a slump of yawning boredom. Bliss!

Almost as much bliss as dithering in a well-stocked cheesemonger trying to decide which cheeses to take home and present on a nice wooden board to round off a meal with friends.

My cheese tastes have evolved, something I’ve managed to observe almost objectively (weird stuff, cheese). My first love affair was with anything repulsively stinky; rind-washed goo like Stinking Bishop and Epoisses. I still want something pungent on a cheese plate, but my tastes gradually shifted to an adoration of ripe and often ashed goat cheeses; Selles sur Cher and Sainte-Maure de Touraine are a couple of favourites, or Ragstone and Lightwood Capria from the UK. Perhaps three years ago I began to find a much higher proportion of blue cheeses in my semi-regular trips to the Teddington Cheese, as I ate my way through all kinds and found that they don’t get much better than Barkham Blue, or Cashel Blue for the Irish contingent. The blue cheese fad didn’t last, as I’ve matured (haha) now onto firm, salty cheeses like a good Manchego, or Premier Cru Gruyere, or local examples like the excellent Berkswell.

You can consider all those to be recommendations! Your cheese board cannot fail if you have one from each of those categories, along with some Montgomery’s Cheddar and a nice creamy specimen of Wigmore or Waterloo for those who fancy something milder.

Oh! Oh! Not forgetting some of the “specials” that don’t really fit a category. Gaperon is lovely, with a gentle garlicky taste. I generally despise flavoured cheeses in the UK – it’s usually some cruddy cheddar with a load of harsh chilli or whatever mixed into it. The French do it properly. Another example being the kooky Boulette d’Avesnes, flavoured with parsley, tarragon and paprika and delighting in the nickname ‘suppositoire du diable’. One truly great cheese you can only put on your board between October and April is Vacherin Mont d’Or, a gooey treat that holds a very slightly spicy flavour from the spruce bark it is wrapped in.

To tart up your cheese board I would personally suggest putting a big blob of quince paste in a gap between the cheeses, and tucking little clusters of 3-4 grapes snipped from the bunch in as well. I reckon quince paste makes a better accompaniment to the whole range of cheeses than most relishes and is also the One True Way to enjoy eating quince. And grapes are just a bit more appealing at the end of a meal than austere little sticks of celery.

I’m not sure what to say about bread and biscuits. It’s such a dry subject. HahahahaHA! Yes. I prefer some kind of artisan bread flavoured with something that goes well with cheese; walnut bread, for example. But a mixture of any quality bread and biscuits can’t go wrong.

Finally, I have a question for any erudite foodies reading this. Several years ago I had a French cheese on a cheese board at the Fat Duck that was creamy, rinded and with a pronounced saffron flavour. It was lovely, and I’ve never found it again nor been able to locate it on the internets. Any ideas?

Review: The Crown at Whitebrook

They were very nice at The Crown when we showed up for lunch unannounced, in my case in muddy jeans, a T-shirt and walking shoes. I might not have blamed the maitre d’ for taking a long look at me and then deciding that they were fully booked. It’s possible that my jacket redeemed me, or simply that the terribly harsh life in an isolated, wet and mossy valley on the Welsh borders tends to breed hospitality.

The Wye valley is seriously beautiful. If you’ve never been, go.

The Crown was clearly once a pub, but inside they haven’t taken the “posh pub does food” route, they’ve transformed it entirely into a soothing dining room of warm whites with a comfy lounge on the side. Oddly the door in from the car park still looks like it belongs to a boozer; just a minor touch that could be neatened up.

The two of us chose a la carte, which effectively gave us the 6-course tasting menu as the dishes were all on the a la carte and we dipped our forks freely across the table. Very freely, because we both had dishes that were attractive to look upon and delicious to eat!

Amuse bouche of butternut squash, ham hock and foraged leaves with truffle foam was good, and I’d love to know how they got that slightly sturdy texture into the squash. Good bread selection. My starter of shredded ox-tail in open lasagne with Madeira was cosy. Like me, you probably read that and expect a rich Madeira gravy over the ox-tail, but no! There were instead beautiful little cubes of Madeira jelly, and the flavour was startlingly clear and zippy. Yum. Maureen’s starter of smoked haddock brandade, pig’s head and sweetcorn was an even better dish, very fitting to the blustery autumn afternoon outside with the last of the leaves coming off the trees. Both dishes were prettily plated and nicely balanced.

For my main I had a chewily good piece of monkfish on samphire with pieces of artichoke and a tangy aubergine puree. The novelty item for me were the Japanese artichokes, which look like fat grubs and were scrunchy (presumably blanched only) and had a mildly Jerusalem-artichoky taste. Otherwise, a pleasantly austere fish dish. Maureen riffed again on the theme of autumn with some good pink duck breast served with a bacon and lentil gravy and some deeply flavourful butternut squash. Nothing innovative, but the flavours melded together into a warm glow, like a good bonfire night.

Desserts were pretty decent. Maureen’s white chocolate and tonka souffle had a good flavour, though the crème anglaise added to finish it didn’t really do much. My date and fig pudding was neatly served in an individual Le Creuset, and was delicious with the dark caramel sauce, although the pudding was actually rather dry on its own. Good enough, but not epic.

For £30 this was a seriously good value 3 course lunch, and this is all technically great cooking with neat presentation and splendidly seasonal flavours, albeit with only a modicum of innovation. If you ever find yourself in this neck of the woods, I wouldn’t hesitate to suggest a meal out at The Crown, though it’s perhaps not enough of a destination to take a six hour round-trip from London for on its own. Ah… but I did say you ought to visit the Wye valley anyway…

Jerusalem artichoke soup

Prepare the croutons! Dig out the gas masks! Roast the hazelnuts! For it is Jerusalem Artichoke season once more, and the knobbly little uglies are back in my local greengrocer. All hail the mighty Jerusalem Artichoke!

What do you mean, you don’t know what I’m talking about? Next time you’re in a greengrocer, or maybe a larger supermarket, look for a box of knobbly little thingamies with maybe a few hairy roots left on them. No, leave that big thingamy along, that’s a celeriac. I’m talking smaller, the size of a small potato. They might be brownish or purplish, and might well be dirty. Now buy some. And hopefully you’ve just bought some Jerusalem Artichokes instead of iris rhizomes.

What you can do with your purchase is cook up the most amazingly earthy, smoky, autumnal soup that you could imagine. There is no flavour quite like these fellas, although truffles and beetroot exist in the same sort of head-space. They’re like… well, imagine walking along a canalside on a foggy day in late autumn, kicking up piles of spotty red and gold maple leaves, while somewhere nearby an old duffer has a bonfire going in his allotment. That’s what Jerusalem Artichokes taste like.

I was so delighted when I first found them a few years back. Now I look forward to this time every year. And lo the bells shall ring with the cheerful flatulence of Jerusalem Artichoke season!

Er… yes. Maureen seems immune, but most of us mere mortals will discover a jolly buoyant sensation a few hours after a dish of these odd roots. Just so you know. Hope I haven’t put you off.

Jerusalem artichoke soup

5-6 Jerusalem artichokes
2 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
1 medium onion, chopped
1 stick celery, chopped
1 bay leaf
1 pint chicken or vegetable stock
butter
salt and pepper

Makes two big bowls, or four starters

  1. Peel your artichokes. This can be a fun game in itself if you have the really knobbly ones! Roughly chop them
  2. Sauté the onion and celery in butter for a few minutes, then add the artichokes and garlic and sauté for a few minutes more
  3. Pour in the stock, add the bay leaf, season with salt and pepper, and leave to simmer covered for 30 minutes or until the artichokes totally fall apart when you prod them
  4. Blend it smooth, you’re done!
  5. Well, okay, you can also add a dollop of cream or crème fraiche at the blending stage to make it creamier, and when you serve it you can drizzle some good olive oil on, or even better some truffle oil. I also like to add chopped-up roasted hazelnuts. This time I also added a cooked beetroot with the stock, and that worked really well. Oh, and for decoration there’s also the funky thing you can do with dried apple slices! What you do is peel an apple then cut really thin slices using a mandolin or a big knife, then pop them on greaseproof paper in the oven at about 70C so they just dry out over an hour or two, and you end up with crispy little apple rings that are very nice perched on the edge of the bowl like lemon slices on a cocktail. And this time I tried the same with super-thin slices of onion, which also worked. Er… is this still a bulletpoint?

Pumpkin soup

Halloween isn’t really celebrated in earnest here in the UK. Each year a few people decide to have a fancy dress party, and of course most kids get to troop around their immediate neighbourhood in shop-bought costumes asking (usually nicely) for sweets. And various things that happen every week anyway get to be horror themed this week, just like The Simpsons.

Still, I always carve a pumpkin. It’s my one observance, a restrained outlet for my creative juices when I’d rather be up on a rain-washed heath with a coven of sexy witches engaged in some serious blood-letting in the name of Hecate. Did I say that out loud?

This year I’ve gone trad, with an ugly face. My favourite ever was the tiger from a couple of years back. The secret weapon is a scalpel. You can get some pretty fine detail done with one of them. Don’t ask me why I have a scalpel, I can’t remember. Nor where the blood stains came from.

And of course once you’ve hollowed out your pumpkin you might have up to a kilogram of sweet flesh to deal with. Pumpkin soup time! But if you’re bored with pumpkin soup, I can totally recommend Nigel Slater’s recipe for a Pumpkin Scone. It’s excellent, and totally fitting for a brightly cold or miserably rainy evening at the end of October.

Of course, even after this we still had enough left for pumpkin soup! I like it spicy…

Spiced pumpkin soup
500g pumpkin flesh
1 small onion, roughly diced
1 small apple, cored and chopped into chunks
3 cloves garlic, skin on
1 pint vegetable stock
1 tsp cinnamon powder
1 tsp cumin seeds, dry-fried
1 tsp dried thyme
1/4 of a habanero chilli (or less if you don’t like spicy, or just omit)

  1. Put the pumpkin bits in a roasting tray, stick the garlic cloves and apple amongst them, pour on a little olive oil, season with salt and pepper, then roast at 160C for 20-30 mins. Basically, don’t let much of the pumpkin go black.
  2. Fry the onion in butter for a few minutes, then throw in the pumpkin, apple and the garlic flesh (squeezed out of the cloves like toothpaste!).
  3. Add the stock, the cinnamon, the chilli and the thyme. Simmer for 20 minutes or so – longer is fine.
  4. Blend! Serve in a bowl, sprinkled with cumin seeds.

I had some spare blue goat cheese, and this also worked very well crumbled on top.

Review: Victor’s at Schloss Berg, Germany

Arriving at Schloss Berg just after dark in a taxi was a slightly surreal experience. We were expecting an old German castle with high pointed turrets and perhaps a couple of floppy grey weimaraners lounging on the stone steps. Instead we passed a brightly lit sign welcoming us to “Schloss Berg Casino” and then arrived at an enormous car park in front of a modern building with a glass pyramid on the roof, glowing with rainbow coloured lights. Disconcerting, although it turned out that the old castle remained intact behind this brassy add-on, and our dining room had proper old timbers holding up the ceiling. There was even a suit of armour in the basement by the toilets.

There were lots of lovely touches at Victor’s which all helped polish the third star. I’m remembering… stylish ceramic butter knives, interesting knobbly plates that looked like they were made from the shells of exotic sea creatures, olive oil we dripped onto our bread with a pipette, comfy swivel chairs to sit in. It’s a tiny dining room, only 34 covers, and very convivial. Service was restrained but extremely attentive throughout the meal, with all the immense attention to detail you would expect at 3 stars. Some details did hit the wrong note for me: after our main course the crumbs were cleared from our table, but since two of us had (gasp) created marks on the tablecloth that couldn’t be brushed off, we had a fresh white napkin placed over our part of the table. I felt like a naughty child. Of course, at the end of the meal I dipped the bill in my uneaten petit-four and then tipped my water glass over, so perhaps I shouldn’t feel too offended.

Food! There’s a lot to get through.

Greetings!

We had a few different canapés, including a crispy breaded riceball with a splendid flavour of brined olives and a cornet filled with smoked eel cream and topped with a red blob of steak tartare. Then no less than three proper pre-starters, which are charmingly called ‘greetings’ at Victor’s and were almost large enough to be a starter in other restaurants. The first was a collection of three little riffs on the theme of carrots. The idea horrified Maureen, who hates the little orange devils, but in fact they were delightful. Albeit also as a reminder that the main purpose of carrot is to be covered by other flavours (cumin, coriander, apple and miso among others here). The next greeting was a trio of crab and a real bucket of textures; wobbly crab jelly, crispy breaded crab ball, unctuous crab ‘tartare’, scrunchy toasted seeds, tingly apple sorbet, crunchy cucumber package and a soft cheesy mousse beneath it all. Perfect. The final greeting was a stunning chestnut soup liberally topped with sliced alba truffles, served piping hot so the truffle scent envelopes your whole headspace. This soup was so rich it was actually obscene. In a good way.

Starters ‘n’ fish

On with the proper courses. I liked the way the waitress actually called it that: ‘here is your first proper course…’ Anyway, it was foie gras. Sorry, goose liver. Chilled goose liver wrapped in a thin layer of carrot(!) and seaweed, surrounded by a little mushroom ragout with pearls of frozen foie gras and a vinaigrette of Japanese lemon. This ragout was brilliant, and to be honest I could have done with only one of the three pillars of goose liver provided. Not a criticism of the dish, just that I’ve personally become bored with chilled goose liver.

Next up was a huge scallop, perfectly cooked, surrounded by various constructions of butternut squash; thin discs, blobs, coins and tiny cylinders filled with purée. There was a nice foamy beurre blanc to bring it together, but to my palate it lacked the tarragon flavour promised. The second seafood was a piece of John Dory, again beautifully cooked, crusted with nuts and topped with a crispy bit of skin. It came with four flavours; blobs of sour Japanese lemon, blobs of sweet potato, a tiny quenelle of salty anchovy relish and a puddle of spicy ginger oil. These came together as designed, more than the sum of their parts, the ginger just warm enough to be noted rather than overpowering the fish. It’s a brave chef that pairs ginger with fish. But I guess for me this dish was more courageous than clever; he pulled it off, but did he really need to?

Main course

I have to confess that by the main course we were all stuffed. The meal was just too big. Of course we didn’t have to eat everything, but it’s hard to know how large a meal will end up being when you’re still in the early stages. Anyway. Three tablets of sturdy back beef, cooked medium, along with a slender piece of slow-cooked rib with a lovely crust. These were accompanied by delightful baby roasted onions, a crispy breaded ball of onion and a couple of blobs of over-salted grey-brown mulch. This was described as Japanese aubergine, but I can do without novelty if the result is unappealing in texture, colour and seasoning. Very good beef, but as a construction this dish was unbalanced in my opinion and one component was poor.

And to finish
Pre-dessert was a spiffy re-constructed apricot with chocolate mousse and different elements of green tea; very delicious on the eye and in the mouth. This was followed by more for dessert, an artistic presentation of chocolate with hidden passionfruit elements that came together very nicely indeed. It was good and surprisingly light. Chef Christian Bau has a very deft touch with chocolate. And the petit-fours were the finest and most extensive selection I have ever been presented with, just a pity I couldn’t find the tiniest corner of space to stuff them all into. I did my best.

Concluding words

I left thinking that perhaps Christian Bau is more naturally a pâtissière than anything else. His plates are always beautiful, he seems to have a natural affinity for sweet flavours, and the strongest dishes were definitely the desserts, petit-fours and ‘greetings’. For my palate, he wasn’t as balanced in putting together tastes and textures on a main dish; not enough to bite into, not enough punch. Surely 3-star meals don’t have to appeal chiefly to elderly ladies with wobbly dentures?

But what the heck. We had just the kind of over-the-top fine dining experience you would hope to have at a 3 Michelin star venue, and the food gave us lots to talk about over the two superlative Mosel Rieslings we enjoyed with the meal (one was a 1975, the oldest table wine I’ve ever drunk and yet a mere £80). We’d have enjoyed it more if we’d been given less, though.

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