The cheeseboard at Christmas should offer something for every passing glutton. What do you like on yours?
If you don't have something to eat at every moment of the day, you're doing Christmas wrong. No matter that you're already stuffing in three times as much as usual at every meal, and making room for various new ones as well (although why we don't have an 11am sherry and stollen moment year round is beyond me) - an idle stomach is strictly against the festive spirit.
Unless you're a competitive eater by trade, it's important to approach this challenge tactically. The lure of sweet things, your mince pies and yule logs, will quickly pall, so the seasoned glutton always lays in some savoury alternatives to refresh the palate. The traditional festive duo of cheese footballs and twiglets aren't a bad start, but they're lamentably light on the requisite calories.
What you really need is a Christmas cheeseboard, which can sit in state on the kitchen table throughout the festive period, waiting for people to carve bits off as they pass. More conventionally, of course, it can be pressed into service after the plum pudding to tide you over until the next round of mince pies, and will do sterling work on a Boxing Day buffet alongside the cold turkey and ham.
This being the biggest celebration of the year, however, the Christmas cheeseboard shouldn't consist of a cracked hunk of cheddar originally purchased for jacket potatoes around Bonfire Night, and a goat's cheese so pungent no one's sure if it's off. With which fanfare, we present to you, the Word of Mouth guide to assembling the perfect Christmas cheeseboard.
Real cheese doesn't wait around patiently in the fridge until you fancy a nibble, as Ruaridh Buchanan, manager of the venerable Paxton & Whitfield in Jermyn Street explains. (Paxton's, peddling cheese since 1742, was named Britain's best cheese counter 2012 at the recent World Cheese Awards, so he knows whereof he speaks.) "A good cheesemonger will gear their stock so it's ready for Christmas," he tells me - while for the rest of the year, stock is sold ripe and ready to eat, in December, they lay in cheese which will be at its best around 25 December. "With stilton, it's quite a tight window, two weeks or so, when we think it's at its best." As long as you've got enough room to store it properly, that doesn't mean you can't buy in advance, however: even more delicate soft cheeses, Ruaridh says, will keep a week.
It's always tempting to try and please everybody when putting together a cheeseboard, but this is one time when you should be a bit selfish. "Go big, go bold" advises Charles Bradford, owner of the Gog Magog Hills Farm Shop in Cambridgeshire, which specialises in British and Irish cheeses. Ruaridh agrees it's better to go for "fewer cheeses and bigger bits".
This is not only because you want a harmonious balance of flavours, but because larger pieces keep better. Three or four seems to be about the right number, when I ask around at the World Cheese Awards - "a soft, a hard and a blue" says Barry Graham of Dorset's Little Cheese Company: "maybe include something local, and a sheep or a goat's milk cheese for the lactose intolerant."
Cheddar and stilton are the Christmas classics, of course: "20% of everything that comes out of here over Christmas is stilton" Ruaridh says, "about 7.5 tonnes through this shop alone."
The justly iconic blue is often said to be at its best around Christmastime, because that's when the cheese made with the last of the rich summer milk will be ready for sale. Paxton's own version, made for them by Cropwell Bishop, is about 12 weeks old, but the five dairies licensed to make stilton all produce very different cheeses, so it's worth trying before buying if possible. "The big thing to look out for is a creamy hue," Ruaridh tells me. "Ripe stilton shouldn't be white, and it shouldn't be crumbly." He rubs a piece between his fingers to show me the correct consistency - something like cold butter.
If you're not a fan, however, there are lots of other options. Rob Freckingham, owner of The Cheese Shop Nottingham, recommends Beauvale, a soft, mellow blue also made by Cropwell Bishop - if you can get hold of it that is. "It's like rocking horse milk," Freckingham laughs - "it goes so fast we've had to take it off the counter." Easier to find, he says, is the multi-award winning buttery Barkham Blue, made from Guernsey and Jersey milk instead.
Ruaridh reckons Dorset Blue Vinney is "a lovely alternative - made with skimmed milk, it's a bit stronger, sharper and less creamy than stilton." Or, if you want to get all exotic, spicy Spanish Picos Blue comes wrapped in maple leaves, which looks pleasingly decorative, and, according to Ruaridh, makes "a cracking accompaniment to a dry oloroso sherry, or the dessert wine you've already got out for the Christmas pudding." (From personal experience, it's also strong enough to keep your eyes open throughout the Queen's Speech.)
If stilton is a festive treat, cheddar is the workhorse of the British cheeseboard: bought in quantity year-round, it's well worth pushing the boat out for a taste of the good stuff at Christmas. Most is sold between nine and 14 months old, but if you, like the rest of the country, find your tastes increasingly turning towards the really mature version, Barry (who, as a West Country man himself, knows a thing or two about cheddar) suggests looking for a 15-month-old farmhouse cheese, which will have been produced using the rich milk of the previous summer. Unlike many of the mass-produced strong cheddars, which can still have a slightly rubbery, wet texture, such cheeses are allowed to age in the traditional fashion, wrapped in cloth, giving them a more complex flavour and interesting texture. Names to look out for include Montgomery's, Keen's and Westcombe.
As an alternative, Ruaridh enthusiastically recommends trying some of Britain's "beautiful territorial cheeses: Lincolnshire Poacher has a slightly more waxy texture, and can get a bit more fiery. Or a traditional Lancashire, double or single gloucester, red leicester - all of them offer pretty good value for money, especially if you start comparing them to the big, hard-hitting Alpine cheeses." Barry, meanwhile, claims that the nettles that Cornish Yarg comes in are a good aid to digestion - a tip which might well come in useful at this time of year.
Soft and fluffy
Balance is the name of the game with a Christmas cheeseboard, so include something creamy and soft to act as a counterweight to the blue and hard cheeses. Rob suggests a mellow goat's cheese, on the basis that "people are gradually developing a palate for it, so if they're prepared to try it, don't blow them away." He recommends Rachel, a sweet, nutty goat's cheese from Somerset, while Ruaridh puts his money on Aldwych, which he says "has a nice goaty tang, without tasting like the billy goat just ran over it", or the mild and creamy Cerney from the Cotswolds.
If you want something a bit more punchy, "because there are a lot of strong flavours in a Christmas meal, and it's nice to find something that would stand up to that", a classic French Époisses, or the wonderfully buttery, Reblochon-like Baronet are great both on a cheeseboard and, as Ruaridh suggests, melted over leftover roast potatoes in the unlikely event of there being any. The infamously aromatic Vacherin Mont d'Or, meanwhile, comes in its own wooden box, is only available for a few months of the year, and is at its smelly best around Christmas time.
Or, of course, you can go mad and splurge on one of Paxton & Whitfield's Brie de Meaux stuffed with black truffles - a whole round would set you back £150, but it's also easy to make your own by mixing together finely minced truffle and a rich cream cheese like Brillat Savarin, slicing a smaller Brie in half laterally, then spreading the truffle mixture on top, sandwiching it back together, and leaving it to infuse for a day or so.
Lastly, there are a lot of novelty cheeses around at this time of year - and if you're tempted, Charles Bradford has one word for you: don't. "Just because it's Christmas, you go for a cranberry cheese. NO."
Sizing, storage and serving
Bradford says he works on the principle of 50g cheese per person at the end of a meal, going up to 100g per person if the cheeseboard is the meal - but, although big hunks of cheese do look impressive, don't be tempted to put out more than you need for each occasion to keep it at its best.
Keep the rest wrapped in greaseproof paper or foil (remove clingfilm, or the cheese will sweat) in the salad drawer of your fridge or another cool place - Paxton & Whitfield's cellars are at 12C, so if your fridge is full of turkey, don't despair, the garage will do fine. Putting something like a carrot in with it will help stop the cheese drying out. Get it out about an hour before you want to serve, so it can come to room temperature, but keep it wrapped, or cover any cut surfaces with a damp cloth.
Barry recommends using a different knife for each cheese, to prevent cross-contamination, and Charles gives me a nifty tip involving buying a slate tile for a few pounds and sealing it with olive oil to use as a handsome-looking board.
In terms of accompaniments, it's reassuring to know there's no need to go mad with the biscuits - blue cheeses go best with something a bit sweet, soft cheeses with a crisp, light cracker, but something neutral should work with everything. Equally, the same chutneys that go so well with the festive ham will also pair well with cheese, as will fruit and nuts: a bunch of grapes and a few walnuts scattered across the board, and you've got yourself a Flemish still-life as well as lunch.
Hard cheeses that are past their best can always be melted into a sauce or fondue, but choose well, and look after them, and you won't need to resort to such violence.
What are your top recommendations for Christmas cheeses - do you like to keep things British, or is Christmas not Christmas without a wheel of Brie or a nice sweet Gorgonzola? Or is cheese just one step too far on the road to festive indigestion as far as you're concerned?
Cheese, grapes and wine. Photograph: Emotive Images/Alamy