Patricia Michelson, founder and director of La Fromagerie, on the best truckles and tipples for a festive feast
There is a gentle thud in the Cheese Maturing Room at the moment – rather like a child throwing a ball against a wall. Thud… thud… thud goes the monotonous tone. The turning of cheeses, especially the Stilton, is part of our regular routine, but when you receive hundreds of cheeses of all shapes and sizes – around two tonnes arrived last month – it’s a laborious, but rewarding task. I love this time of year for the sheer variety of produce we sell. Seeing the fruits of our labour displayed on the table is a culmination of a year’s hard work.
Not everyone has family around at Christmas, or even friends; some of us are on our own either through choice or design, but that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy the simple pleasure of cheese. It almost feels fitting given the time of year – to break bread and wine with a little cheese in celebration.
I’m looking at this through rose-tinted lenses of course, because in reality the worst arguments are always when family, or friends for that matter, are thrown together like this – then there’s the cursing that we have bought way too much food, especially cheese, since it is often still languishing in the fridge or bike shed weeks after Christmas. I have to say, I don’t like buying too much, and I will gently persuade anyone who I feel is going over the top, or trying too hard to please all the family by getting too many varieties.
There are the firm favourites – Cheddar, Stilton, Roquefort, Brie, washed rind soft cheeses and fancy little goat’s cheeses. Our shops in Marylebone, Highbury and Bloomsbury are turned into a showcase of cheese porn – with long tables piled high with cheese of all different shapes, styles and aromas possible. The queue, which usually threads its way down the road, is disciplined in its quiet anticipation – yet we know only too well the irritation the waiting causes, so we ease it with samples, hot chocolate, mulled wine and mince pies. We always hold back a few baby Stilton and Cheddar as well as boxed Mont d’Or for the last minute shoppers who rush in at 5pm on Christmas Eve in a blind panic.
Mont d’Or is always a big seller at festive occasions: it’s at its peak in winter, since the season starts in late September and finishes in March. We love to serve small boxed cheeses that can be baked like a fondue – it’s the perfect dish for unexpected guests or younger members of the family who want to have their own supper party.
I can’t decide whether Christmas should be all about tradition, or about trying something new. It’s not absolutely necessary to wheel out the Stilton at lunch on Christmas Day – maybe wait until early evening when there’s been time to relax (and digest) to have cheese and biscuits with your chosen wine or spirit.
Looking further ahead still to New Year’s Eve, I’ll be enjoying the Beaufort Chalet d’Alpage, our signature cheese that has been matured specially for the festive season for 30 months or more, together with a slice of our Brie aux Truffes as the clock strikes midnight – and a glass or two of champagne
Michelson’s suggestions for matching the cheese trolley with the drinks one
Sherry: You can’t keep sherry for long once it has been opened, so use it again for a cheeseboard that includes Manchego, or a rather lovely rich and unctuous Torta de Dehesa, made from unpasteurised Churra ewe’s milk with vegetarian thistle rennet. The herd is managed on Hacienda Zorita, a self-contained organic farming estate in Salamanca, and the cheese’s smooth texture is silky with a rich and earthy aroma.
Port: Port is traditionally reserved for farmhouse Cheddar and Stilton, but it’s also great with the nutty acidity of goat’s cheese. Something like an Azeitão from southern Portugal, which almost flows with ewe’s milk curd as you break open the cheese; or Balanchares Tunel Ceniza from Andalucia, a sharp goat’s milk log with a dusting of charcoal ash. I also enjoy a slightly chilled white port with fresh goat’s cheese and soft creamy Wigmore ewe’s milk cheese from Berkshire.
White wine: Whether the rich, buttery style of Chardonnay or the racy yet balanced acidity of Sauvignon, there are many cheeses that delight in being paired with white wine. Favourites such as Comté and Mont d’Or come to mind immediately with Chardonnay; but there are blue cheeses, too, such as a young Zelu Koloria from the Basque region with its metallic hit of blue alongside the earthy sweetness of the ewe’s milk. This works well with white wines with a hint of salty sweetness. The lighter, fresher tasting goat’s cheeses are always perfect with a Sauvignon Blanc and, some may find this surprising, a farmhouse Cheddar with a lovely sharp bite.
Red wine: I tend towards Italian reds for Christmas such as Barolo and Brunello, simply because they are great wines that work well with opulent dining. Cheeses can be rich, like Saint-Marcellin or a dense and mellow Brie-style Baron Bigod from Jonny Crickmore’s farm in Suffolk; as well as big blues such as Gorgonzola or Roquefort. If you want to go down the French route for wines, I always love Côtes du Rhône or Bordeaux for Christmas meals – enjoy the last drops with some Saint-Nectaire, which marries beautifully with the smooth yet fully-bodied fruitiness of the wine, before moving onto port. Ewe’s milk cheese from southwest France, such as Ossau-Iraty and Napoleon with their sweet notes, are great with bold reds like a Madiran or Gigondas. It’s at this time of year that I also love the flavours of Camembert Calvados: it’s a truly Christmassy taste paired with a glass of Calvados, and if you put my book Cheese on your wish list you’ll be able to make this yourself rather than buy it from me.