You don’t have to look too far from home for the perfect cheese

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Too often cheese boards are treated like the poor relations of their more affluent and rich pudding cousins. A well balanced display of cheese is the perfect indulgence for the festivities.

When sourcing the best selection a good deli is worth sussing out and you’ll be supporting a local business. The supermarket cheese selection tends to be captured and held prisoner under plastic in trays. It’s much better to choose them from a chilled counter where the cheese can breathe and you can sample.

Cheesemaking is relatively new to Northern Ireland with only a handful of producers practising their craft.

Historically, Ireland was a nation of butter makers and cheese production was reserved for when a child was born. A curd cheese was made to celebrate the birth, much like a cottage cheese, and was named the “crying cheese”. It’s purported that the Romans didn’t invade Ireland because we were a nation of “barbarous butter makers”. Cheese making in the south of Ireland flourished with the arrival of Austrians, Germans and Dutch who settled here from the 1950s onwards.

While the trade is now established across the island, it’s only been in the past few years that there have been any producers in the Ulster. Now Kearney Blue Cheese from Down, Young Buck from Newtownards, Dart Mountain Cheese in the Sperrins and City Cheese from Millisle, have been recognised globally in international awards.

The milk from here is probably the best in the world – we can complain about the rain but it makes for rich pastures that result in a liquid that in turn creates an epic added value commodity.

While we need to celebrate our wonderful local dairy, you can’t ignore the rest of the world when choosing the ultimate cheese board. The French will always claim to be the best cheesemakers in the world and they have plenty of experience. One of their best cheeses is a Morbier from the Comte, it’s a layer of morning milk cheese, separated with ash and then topped with evening milk cheese. French Vacherin is in season now – a soft cheese that can be baked in the wooden box it’s presented in and then dipped with hunks of crusty bread. Both, and many more, are available from Arcadia Deli on the Lisburn Road in Belfast.

If we let the French have the soft section on the board, look to England for a fine blue Stilton to tick that box. It’s been around for centuries and you can’t ignore the quality that comes with experience.

For a softer blue, Italian Gorgonzola is hard to beat – tangy, zesty and creamy. We tend to think that you need at least 10 cheeses to have a successful board but the reality is that four well chosen contrasting colours, textures and flavours will be sufficient.

A soft cheese from France, a Stilton, an Northern Irish hard cheese like Banagher Bold from Dart Mountain and a soft goat’s would be hard to beat and unfussy to boot.

Now you’ve chosen the cheese the accompaniments are just as important. Make sure it’s not fridge cold – allow it to breathe for at least half an hour before serving. One of my pet hates, when I go to a restaurant is ice cold cheese, served with crackers that resemble thin cardboard, a plop of indiscernible chutney and some token grapes. You can buy decent biscuits but my first recipe this week is for buttery cheese ones that are perfect straight from the oven.

The other recipe is for a salted grape and walnut loaf. Serve warm with goat’s or blue cheese drizzled with honey for an extraordinary treat.

Chutney is vital to a good display. You don’t need to go to the bother of making them as there are brilliant artisans out there. Claire Kelly of Passion Preserves makes a watermelon pickle that any self respecting fridge should always have in it. She makes apple and damson jellies that would work equally well with a variety of cheeses.

Margaret Cooper of Made with Love produces a wonderfully spicy and sweet Christmas chutney that quite frankly is great all year round but especially with a good soft cheese. Both these companies products are readily available.

Scatter some nuts around the cheese, have some celery sticks, sliced apple and grapes for a fruity hit and contrasting textures.

Enjoy a little indulgence now – there’ll be plenty of time for lentils in January.

Wishing you a very happy Christmas!