How To Build The Ultimate Cheese Board For Festive Holiday Gatherings

Cheese is always a good idea.

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Holiday cheese board with blue cheese, sage derby cheese, beemster, figs, pears and honey

Photo, Roberto Caruso.

Nothing will make guests go gaga quite like a cheese board. This year, go beyond the tried and true with a selection of crowd-pleasing cheeses that truly offer something for everyone — from your vegan cousin to your tiniest guests — without sacrificing flavour. Best of all, you can find these beautifully creamy, salty, spreadable and even dairy-free picks in your favourite supermarket’s cheese section.

To really ace this appetizer platter, pair each of your cheeses with another little morsel. Look for simple crackers, a selection of cured meats and perhaps even some fruit and jelly, and let your nearest and dearest dig in.

We chatted with cheese board experts (including a certified cheese master) for more tips on how take this holiday staple to the next level

What type of cheeses should I put on my cheese boards?

“The biggest thing to remember is variety. That’s the best part of cheese. There are so many different styles and textures and flavours and aromas,” says Afrim Pristine, Maitre Fromager, or cheese master at Toronto’s famous Cheese Boutique — he also just released the cheese-themed cookbook For the Love of Cheese. He recommends serving five to six cheeses at a time.

Don’t just choose obscure cheeses you might love — keep your guests’ palates in mind. “Yes, you want to enjoy it, but so do your guests,” says Pristine. “And really, that’s why you’re doing it.”  Pristine’s ideal board would include a hard cow’s milk cheese (think cheddar or Parmigiano-Reggiano), a soft cow’s milk cheese (like brie), a goat’s milk cheese, a sheep’s milk cheese, a blue cheese and a wild card — perhaps one that’s flavoured or aged in beer. And remember, cheese tastes best when it’s lost its fridge chill — take it out two hours before serving.

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How much cheese should I buy?

While it might be tempting to stock up on fine cheeses (especially if your favourite type’s on sale), Pristine urges folks to buy only what you need — cheese isn’t something you want to shop for in bulk because it won’t keep well in your fridge. If you have a group of about 10 people, Pristine suggests about two to three ounces, or 75 to 90 grams, of total cheese per guest (about five or six decent-sized wedges would be ideal).

What should I serve with my cheese?

Cheese should always be the star of the show, but you’ll need a neutral-flavoured vessel to get the cheese from the board into your mouth — water crackers or thinly sliced pieces of baguette would do the trick.

Mild cured meats go well with cheese too, as do nuts, dried fruit and certain types of fresh fruit, including apples, pears, figs and grapes because they provide a nice palate cleanser. For a unique pairing, try blue cheese with honey or honeycomb. And if you’re looking for a veggie-friendly savoury pairing (when meat’s off-the-table), try red pepper jelly with a full-flavoured, or stinkier cheese, like a triple-cream brie.

However, when it comes to food and alcohol pairings, let you tastebuds be your guide. “Pairings are so individual,” says Pristine. “Are there guidelines? For sure. Are there rules? Absolutely not.”

As for his guidelines, Pristine likens booze and cheese pairings to boxing. “If I have a heavyweight cheese, I want to pair it with a heavyweight alcohol and vice versa,” he says. Avoid pairing a big, bold red with a mild goat cheese, for instance — an aged gouda or blue cheese would go better with that Cab Sauv.

How should I decorate my cheese board?

Vancouver-based food stylist Lisa Dawn Bolton’s new cookbook On Boards is all about serving food on boards. She says the key is creating visual interest. “I finish all my boards with an edible flower or a sprinkling of greens. Salamis and cheeses can be heavy and flat, so I feel it gives a little bit of height to a board.” She also creates levels by placing items in different vessels, such as red pepper jelly in a shot glass or breadsticks in a small tin bucket from the dollar store. Bolton loves putting food on skewers, so try her method by spearing grapes or olives onto toothpicks and scattering them throughout your board.

Cheese board with beemster xo cheese, white fox cheese, grey owl cheese, crostini, nuts, honey, and truffles

Photo, Roberto Caruso.

How should I store leftover cheese?

On the off chance you have leftovers, Pristine says to store it in your crisper drawers since that’s the most humid part of the fridge. But don’t just chuck it in there. To keep your cheese as fresh as possible, double wrap it in wax or parchment paper with a layer of tinfoil on top. Store leftover parmesan rinds in the freezer (they add a ton of flavour to soup) and if you need to use up that extra cheese quickly, make grilled cheese or melt it over pasta.

The ideal Chatelaine cheese board

The Chatelaine Kitchen created the ultimate festive cheese board for the holidays made with items easily sourced from the grocery store. Around the winter holidays, many supermarkets up their cheese offerings, so there’s plenty to choose from. And if you’re feeling stuck, Pristine suggests having a hunk of Parmigiano-Reggiano on hand — not only does it make pastas and salad sing, but it also pairs perfectly with festive red wine and bubbly. We decided to forgo the classics, so here’s what we sourced for our festive cheese board.

The dairy-free cheese dupe

Silky smooth Nuts for Cheese Red Rind spreadable cashew cheese with mild water crackers. (Look for it in your supermarket’s vegan section, or swap with any type of fermented cashew cheese available).

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The festive special

Sage Derby is savoury and snackable. For an added zing, try it with sweet and spicy ginger jelly. (Another good —and pretty — alternative is Merlot Derby).

The crowd-pleaser

Intensely creamy, White Fox eats like a cheddar and will impress even your youngest guests. It’s nearly addictive when paired with candied walnuts. President’s Choice Black Label sells White Fox. You could also try a sharp, aged cheddar.

The inoffensive blue cheese

Bleu d’Elizabeth might just win over those who think they hate blue cheese. Balance this blue’s sharp saltiness with Anjou pears. (Stilton is another good option.)

The showstopper

Grey Owl, a goat cheese with a vegetable ash rind, is among Meghan Markle’s favourite cheeses. Try this tangy stunner with honeycomb, which also also pairs well with blue cheese!  (Or swap for a sharp goat or sheep’s milk cheese.)

The after-dinner indulgence

Beemster XO is rich and creamy with notes of caramel, which is why it works wonderfully with Chatelaine’s new Salted Caramel Cookies. (Swap for an aged Gouda.)

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