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.)