Restaurant basics – the joys of cheese

Cheese is a wonderful foodstuff and care should be taken to serve it at its best.

Cheese is a wonderful foodstuff and care should be taken to serve it at its best.

I’m amazed by the variety of cheeses that exists, the different flavours and textures that you get depending on the type of milk used and how the curds are stored and matured. The evolution of cheese as a way of storing the fats and proteins in milk fascinates and puzzles me. There are tracts on cheese making but I enjoy the magic of cheese to the point where I culture a level of ignorance. Ignorance of the finer details of cheese production methods, that is, not complete ignorance. I am fully aware that not all cheese is equal.

My tooth is as sweet as the next person’s, but often what I want after dinner isn’t something stickily sweet or chocolatey, but something delightfully savoury. The kind of savour you only get from cheese. A good cheese board makes me jump up and down in my chair from pure joy. A bad cheese board is sad disappointment.

I had the cheese board at a fancy restaurant in Las Vegas a few years back. I should havve known better, of course. The US is great for many things but cheese isn’t one of them. There are good legal reasons for this but I was unaware of them when I ordered. What was served to me was fresh mozzarella, ricotta, Monterey Jack and a hard cheese that was really, really hard. It wasn’t the feast of umami I was looking for. I would happily have had that for lunch, with a bit of french bread, but as a cheese board is was disappointing.

So what makes a good cheese board? It is very simple; a good cheese board is an interesting collection of ripe cheeses served at room temperature.

The term interesting is subjective, so lets deal with ripe and room temperature before going on to what makes a cheese interesting. As suggested by my Las Vegas experience, I think maturation makes cheese more interesting.

All cheese is more or less mature but no cheese should be served before it is ripe. Brie with a crumbly white core is not ready to be eaten and should not be served at home, never mind in a restaurant. Cheese that isn’t ripe doesn’t have its full flavour. If it is served straight from the fridge it has no flavour at all. That’s why it should be served at room temperature – which is closer to 18 degrees C than 25. Cheese and red wine have that in common that they can be too warm as well as too cold.

So, back to interesting. To me, a good cheese board has at least one hard, one soft and one blue cheese. What makes the perfect combination depends a lot of what you personal taste is. Personally, I enjoy a mature cheddar on cheese and toast but I prefer something -almost anything – else on my cheese board.  Soft cheese comes in a many wonderful varieties and a meltingly ripe camembert or brie is a wonderful example of what you can do with cheese. Soft doesn’t stop there, though, and it doesn’t have to be French. It does have to have flavour: tart or mushroomy, buttery or acidic, cheese is all about flavour. Tasteless cheese is a waste of milk. I think almost all blue cheeses are interesting although I admit to being particularly fond of tongue-curlingly strong, hard, blue cheeses but I’m also fond of a creamy Gorgonzola with honey and pine nuts.

Cheese boards are great for sharing. It is a slow, considered eat that invites conversation and lingering. Especially when there’s more than cheese on the board. Oat cakes and bread in all honor: fruit, nuts, jams and chutneys also have a place on a cheese board. Good accompaniments can lift a dull cheese just as dull accompaniments can bring down a good one. Accompaniments should make the cheese easier to eat and add a different dimension to it. And isn’t that the best way to end a meal: finding something new, refreshing your taste buds and growing mellow?

Where do you find a good cheeseboard in Edinburgh?

For good French cheeseboards, try one of these:

  • l’escargot bleu, 56 Broughton Street, Edinburgh, EH1 3SA. Tel: 0131 – 557 1600
  • Le Di-vin, 9 Randolph Place, Edinburgh, EH3 7TE. Tel:0131 538 1815

For a good Italian cheeseboard, try

  • Divino, 5 Merchant Street, Edinburgh, EH1 2QD. Tel: 0131 225 1770

I haven’t come across a great Scottish cheeseboard recently. That is my own fault: there are many delicious Scottish cheeses, I just haven’t chosen the cheeseboard in a restaurant that serves them. When I find one, I’ll add to the list. (Suggestions are welcome in the meantime.)

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About Caroline von Schmalensee

Cooking, eating and drinking is fun as well as necessary. I do food for fun and I write for a living. Good food makes the world a more delicious and satisfying place. Good writing, meanwhile, can make the world a less confusing place.

10 Comments

  1. Pingback: Hotel du Vin Christmas market | Edinburgh Foody

  2. The very best cheese board I’ve ever had was at Kitchin in Leith, even the cheese board at the 3 Michelin starred Waterside Inn, Bray wasn’t as good, in my opinion.

    • That’s interesting – thank you for sharing. I’d have pretty high expectations from a Michelin starred restaurant’s cheeseboard, I must say. I’d want the cheeses to be well picked and served at the perfect temperature and age. It’d be a real disappointment if they weren’t!

  3. I totally agree that it can be quite hard to get a really good cheese board at a restaurant. I will always remember the cheeseboard served at a restaurant in a small alley just off Rose Street, Edinburgh. The owner of the restaurant was wearing a bow tie, and he came around with an enormous cheeseboard, and talked us through through all the different cheeses, and where they came from – he even had photos of the cows from the various farms! It was a little bit eccentric, but it added a bit of theartre to the meal, and it is one that I will never forget. Unfortunately I cannot for the life of me remember the name of the restaurant, nor whether it is still there (it was probably about 10 years ago!). Do you know if this restaurant still exists? And whether it is still serving the cheeseboard?

    • I was talking to the restaurant manager of The Sheep Heid Inn about him just the other day. He’s not in the business anymore, as far she knew, but I’ve never heard of anyone quite that passionate about cheese! The restaurant was called Martin’s Restaurant (it’s now Calistoga, a Californian restaurant owned by someone else). I wish I’d manage to go before he closed.

      • Martin Irons is still around and is involved in various Foody ventures!

        How lovely to read about your Masterchef adventures!

        • Amazing… I have remembered that very same cheese board and the enthusiasm with which Martin displayed a photograph of the cow from whom the milk had been taken to make the cheese. I remember a very pungent stilton which was so mature it made my tongue tingle. That must have been in 1998 or so…

          • I bumped into Martin quite recently! Still the same enthusiasm for everything he does.

          • On my first visit to Edinburgh in 1986, my friend and I were so taken with the food at Martin’s that we went two nights in a row! When I went back with my family in 2003, I was delighted that the restaurant was still there … and that Martin Irons was still introducing the cows whose milk had gone into the cheeses! I’m sorry to learn the restaurant is no longer there, but glad to have the memory of those 3 wonderful meals!

          • Martin is now a lecturer at Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh!

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