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Think quality for Christmas cheese

The UK’s Matt Feroze was crowned Champion de France des Fromagers,18 months after he quit as a London accountant

Matt Feroze gave up his accounting job in London to learn about cheese in France. Eighteen months later he was voted Champion de France des Fromagers. He has since returned to the capital and accounting, but has published a book on his experience, entitled The Cheese and I. Here, he gives Connexion his cheese tips for Christmas. He is currently working on a second book, a tour around cheese makers in France which is due out next autumn.

So what would you recommend?
If you have family and friends over you will probably have several major meals, so we’re looking at around three cheese courses. What I would do personally is have six different cheeses of a reasonable quality and mix it up. Don’t put everything out at the beginning. Harder cheese and blue cheeses are good at Christmas.

Stilton or Stichelton, which are more and more accessible in France, Roquefort, Gruyère and Franche-Comté will give a slight backbone to your cheese board. For good quality cheese, check out local markets and your cheesemonger – buy a cut above what you buy on a regular basis. Something with two years on it, maybe a bit more if you like it strong.

What’s the best way to store it?
To keep things fresh, you want to minimise the time between the cheese shop and the table. Ideally it’s to be kept at 12°C in a humid environment. A larder is the ideal place for them, or in the fridge, sealed, in the salad drawer, a slightly warmer and more humid environment. Take them out one to two hours ahead of eating, as people sit down for their meal. Keep them wrapped up on the side where they will warm up slowly, in a more controlled manner.

What about presentation?
For the presentation, I would put the cheeses on a cheese board: I often use slate. Check for minor imperfections. With Gruyère, some bits of the rind might have fallen off on to the cut face of the cheese. I would scrape this off to make sure everything is looking perfect. I tend to avoid doing cheese and charcuterie at the same time. You can do it, but watch out for strong meat flavours which might interfere with the more delicate flavours of the cheese. Bread is fine. I prefer to go down the cracker route because it adds more texture, plus the bread has a bit more flavour...

Typically you don’t serve butter with cheese. If some of the guests prefer a mild taste, something like a Stilton, you can cut it with a bit of butter. It’s a sort of gateway to stronger cheeses. Try with apples, that are not too strong and grapes straight out of the fridge. No matter how much you love cheese and how carefully you put together a cheese board, there will always be someone who will cut the end off the brie.

I consider myself a massive cheese snob and very pretentious with this sort of thing. When you put the cheese out, cut a few slices to demonstrate how to cut the cheese. A slice is a representation of the cheese as a whole.

I would talk to your cheesemonger about which are the strong ones and what to eat first. You need to build up to the stronger ones. Just be conscious of the fact that if you’re into cheese your palate can do more than those who are not.

And of course wine…
By the time you have got to the cheese course you will have had your meal, and you will probably be on a red. If you can bear it, switch to a white, or even yellow, something sweet. It’s a good time to experiment with wines with guests and family. The sweetness of the wine will help mellow things out. For people who are not so keen on cheese, it will take some of the sharpness out of it and make things more palatable.

Anything special?
There are certain cheeses that on their own can become a whole cheese course. The Vacherin Mont-d’Or from the northern Alps. It’s a stunning cheese that comes in its own box wrapped in spruce bark. It’s a cheese that looks impressive and is very creamy. When it’s ripe you can literally serve it with a spoon; you can share it between the family. Get one that’s perfect. Tell your cheesemonger when you want to eat it and how many people. You need to leave it out longer to get up to room temperature. Take it out at lunchtime to eat it in the evening. If it’s not runny enough, remove the packaging, wrap the box in foil and put it in a pre-heated oven at 180°C for 10 minutes. It’s a stunning little fondue with a woody taste.

What about traditions?
There’s a British tradition of putting port inside a piece of stilton. I’m not a fan. In France you get Roquefort layered with quince jelly. It’s a very nice looking presentation and it’s a great combination.

When I was serving cheese last year and the year before, people loved our cheeses that had a bit of extra care – stuffed with truffles or cèpe mushrooms. Brillat-Savarin – you can slice it in half and put a mix of mascarpone and truffles, then put it back together. Leave it for 24-48 hours. That truffle flavour, which fat loves, will diffuse throughout the cheese to give you an absolutely incredible flavour. It’s something that people don’t do throughout the year.

Any final advice?
It’s quality over quantity. It’s much better to get a small bit of something really good, of something really outstanding. If you put something small on the board, you can explain why it isn’t a big bit.

What makes cheese really interesting is understanding why it is what it is. Find out some interesting stories about it and explain to people why the cheese is the way it is. Roquefort has been made for thousands of years. It comes from a specific part of France, there are strict rules on making it and various stories on how it originated.

If you share these stories it helps people understand that what they are eating is more than just something out of a plastic box. It’s part of a culture and history and by eating it with family and friends you’re sharing in that history. A huge amount of human effort has gone into getting that cheese on your table.

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