Mrs Kirksham, May I Present Stinking Bishop: Impress your loved one with the art of cheese matchmaking

February 12, 2008

We’ve tasted over a dozen cheeses when I hesitantly bite into a crumbly flake of Dorset Blue Vinny, a frightening-looking fromage if ever there was. “That’s good with Burgundy,” says Rhuaridh Buchanan of Paxton & Whitfield, who, upon catching me trying to conceal a wince, quickly offers a milder version of the veined beast. It’s classic Roquefort, one of over 300 cheeses in the Jermyn Street shop. A third sliver, this time a Harbourne Blue from Devon, is surprisingly mild, the anti-blue blue cheese.

Terror is as intuitive to cheese as terroir. In his hilarious and insightful essay, Fear of Formaggio, Jeffrey Steingarten debunks the belief that eating cheese causes heart disease. I’m here to conquer a different phobia. I love cheese; yet, like many, the prospect of putting together a cheeseboard leaves me cold as the bone-rattling 7C maturing room beneath the shop. Confronting hundreds of curdled specimens induces a rather different, yet acute, form of lactose intolerance. Luckily, it’s after hours; and I’m in good company.

When Rhuaridh, 28, wants to impress his girlfriend, he’s more likely to design a cheeseboard for her than order a bouquet of roses. Sexy, fashion conscious and with a charming Aberdeen accent, Rhuaridh surveys the shop’s impressive spread with sheer confidence. It’s easy to see why the cheesemongers, up against edgier heavyweights La Fromagerie and Neal’s Yard Dairy, persuaded him to turn down a job at the fabled Per Se Restaurant in New York, instead offering him the chance to consult for various restaurants in London.

Why cheese? Ask Rhuaridh, and he shrugs as if any other career is simply out of the question. He can’t contain his passion for the stinky stuff. “The variety and complexity of flavours, how it’s a growing, living thing, is really interesting.” It must be love. Between tasting with customers and sampling new products, Rhuaridh consumes about 300 grams of cheese a day.

I’m quite dismayed when I’m told there are no rules, only guidelines, for cheeseboards. “It’s not my cheeseboard, it’s your cheeseboard,” he chirps from behind a mountain range of Pecorino, Manchego and Crockhamdale (all brebis, or ewe’s milk cheeses). And I thought I would emerge from this session with the curdling equivalent of a mathematical equation. Not so. But what you must do is taste, and taste a lot.

“Cheese is fun!” beams Rhuaridh, picking up on my apprehension. Besides the cheerful business of tasting, building a good cheeseboard is a matter of talking. Ask for help in the shop; describe what you like and don’t like. A good cheesemonger will listen and guide, ultimately allowing you to be the cheeseboard designer.

Back to those guidelines. Simply, keep it varied. You want a balance of textures from hard to soft, a spectrum of flavours from mild to strong and a mix of milk varieties. Cow, goat and ewe are all up for grabs, but buffalo is best saved for pizza. And as much as he likes sharp cheddar, he’d rather have it in a good-old ploughman’s lunch. “Stay in the middle zone of mild to strong. Nothing too quiet and timid, but nothing too fearsome and striking, either.”

Suddenly, something stirs by the Brie de Meux. Rhuaridh laughs and says the place, here since 1896, is haunted. The Stinking Bishop himself, perhaps?

At last, I get a magic formula. Providing the necessary balance to your cheeseboard is easy when you implement the key four: hard, soft, blue, goat. Then, just “throw in a few bits for fun.” There’s that word again.

We decide on an after-dinner cheese course for an imaginary six people. Presumably we’re going to enjoy quite a bit of full-bodied red wine before my masterpiece arrives, so I’ll be a bit bold with our selections. Rhuaridh introduces me to Mrs Kirkham’s Lancashire, a crumbly cow’s milk cheese. With all due respect to the missus, it’s a bit too salty even for my salt-obsessed taste buds.

On to Marcel Petite. This smooth Swiss Comte, also cow’s, is an obvious choice, but now that I’m losing my inhibitions as I take another sip of pretend Bordeaux, I want something off the eaten path. Enter Berkswell, a sheep’s milk cheese from, well, Berkshire. It has a lovely sweet flavour with a slightly grainy bite. Bingo.

Time to take on the soft cheeses, otherwise known as “stinky.” They’re rubbed in alcohol to keep the cheese moist, which results in a stronger flavour and a bright orange rind.

“Whatever the local pop is, that’s what they tend to wash their cheeses with.” Hence the buttery Burgundy Epoisses spiked with a searing 45% proof Marc de Bourgogne.

Rhuaridh thinks it’s too strong a match for my Berkswell, so he suggests Tunworth, a bloomy rind made from the fatty milk of Ayreshire herds. “It’s just so creamy and rich, it’s quite indulgent. You just put your knife through it and it all kind of sticks to it…spread it out on a biscuit…pop it in your mouth. It’s just delicious.” Sold.

The goat’s contest is easy as we nibble through a young Sussex Golden Cross, an older, saltier Charolais from Burgundy and the spicy winner, Tymsboro. I realise all my picks are homegrown. But that’s not surprising to Rhuaridh, who thinks British cheese makers are more experimental than the French and create some of the best cheeses in the world.

And so, in pursuit of fearless variety, we rope in the Roquefort as our Stinking Bishop protests.

cheeseboard basics

Define the occasion
Are you hosting a dinner party, wine and cheese or casual lunch? Tell your cheesemonger.

Name your price
Good cheese costs from £15-25 per kilo. Decide upfront what to spend. A good cheeseboard can be had for £20.

Weigh it up
You’ll need about 100-150g per person, but bear in mind that if you’re having dessert you should buy less.

Bluff the wine
Think terroir, or region of origin. The characteristics that come out in the wine are likely to appear in the cheese. The acidity of a Sauvignon Blanc from the Loire Valley (Old World) mingles well with the clean freshness of a Sancerre goat’s.

Keep it simple
Rhuaridh prefers his cheese straight up. But you can add some mild biscuits for texture as well as apple, dried fruit or nuts, so long as they don’t take away from the main attraction.

Practice your serve
With a few different knives. You don’t want your Camembert smothering your Stilton. Or maybe you do.

Mind your rind
A common question is whether or not to eat it. If it’s stinky and soft: yes, hard and old: no.

Chill it
Cheese is a perishable dairy product. Wrap it tightly in cling film – without air bubbles – and put it in the bottom fridge drawer or in a plastic container. During colder climes, the shed is an ideal moist environment.

Taste on the day
But remember that cheese will have a stronger flavour when you serve it at room temperature. Take it out of the cold 1-2 hours before serving.