The Modern Menu: how to make a cheeseboard at Neal’s Yard Dairy

Original published on Modern House 


So far, our food series, ‘The Modern Menu’, has looked to chefs like Margot Henderson and Ruth Rogers for their take on home cooking, and asked them to share dishes like barbecue lamb and roast grouse. But a menu isn’t only made up of main courses. What about bread, wine and dessert? And how, exactly, do you make a cheeseboard?

To answer the later we visited ground zero of farmhouse cheesemaking in the UK and Ireland, Neal’s Yard Dairy. First opening in its namesake yard in Covent Garden in 1979, when its offering was limited to homemade yoghurt, the cheesemonger has since spearheaded a resurgence of artisanal cheesemaking, serving as an incubator for small-batch producers with whom they work closely, maturing some batches themselves and communicating their know-how to what is now an international customer base.

We visited Neal’s Yard Dairy cheese buyer and co-author of ‘Reinventing the Wheel’ Bronwen Percival at the company’s Borough Market outpost, a short walk from The Modern House HQ, to get her advice on how to make a cheeseboard.

Bronwen, are there any rules when it comes to making a cheeseboard, or selecting cheese in general?
Bronwen: “One of the things that is surprising to me is how many people get really nervous and uptight when they step up to the cheese counter. I thinks it’s because there are so many perceived unwritten rules that people are afraid of breaking, or potential offences waiting to be made.

“I don’t pay attention to any of those rules myself. I think there’s only one rule when it comes to a board: that you should have fun creating it and enjoy eating the cheese. Because, at the end of the day, if you’re happy with it, it’s a perfect cheese board.”

Ok, no rules. Are there any guidelines or starting points?
“If you’re going for one plate, you could argue that you want some balance and diversity. The classic thing to do would be to have a goats’, a hard, a soft and a blue. And that’s a really good entry point in which you’ve covered a lot of bases.

“But you could also do that at a supermarket. One of the things that coming to a cheese shop allows you to do is engage in an interesting conversation with a monger who can tell you about the enlightened regenerative farming techniques that go into a particular cheese, the native microbe communities that a farmer is using or the herds that produce a specific type of cheese.

“So, you could approach a cheese board thematically and say to your monger, ‘I hear about cheeses made with non-commercial starter cultures, like natural wines. Could we create a cheese board from cheeses that are made using only the microbes from the farm they’re made on, with no commercial starters?’

“Or, if you’re interested in different agricultural styles, you could ask to create a board that celebrates cheeses that are just coming into season.

“And, for me, as a cheesemonger, that’s where it really gets interesting because there’s a deeper level of conversation. And it doesn’t mean that the customer has to be an expert in any way, they just have to be open to a theme and see where that theme takes them across the counter, with the help and guidance of the monger.”

Are there any seasonal considerations when eating cheese?
“I think if I had a motto it would that cheese is not just for Christmas. Cheese is one of those wonderful foods that you can enjoy year-round, so if it’s a hot summers day you might not want to eat a piece of Stilton or Cheddar, but fresh goats’ curd or Mozzarella would be delicious.”

And what about accompaniments?
“Again, I love the idea of tapping into the similar conversations that are going on in cheesemaking for this.

“I was at a seminar last night where there was a lot of discussion of regenerative agriculture and there was a very interesting presentation from a baker who’s using a lot of original population kinds of wheat in his loaves, and having the same conversations that we’re having with farmers about how these interesting agricultural methods can make products that speak of the place they’re made.

“So, first of all, I think having bread with your cheese is just a really nice thing. A loaf of freshly baked bread – probably about 45 minutes to an hour out of the oven – is just about perfect to eat with anything, but I think goes particularly well with cheese.

“Likewise there are some absolutely beautiful kinds of honey that are made in similar places to where cheeses are made, with the same pasture biodiversity producing unique flavour profiles. I think honey and cheese can go beautifully together.

“At the end of the day, it’s about what you like and what you feel like. I don’t think there are any hard and fast rules.”

Do you have advice for buying a cheeseboard for two people versus a larger party?
“Sometimes I think just having one cheese is probably the ultimate cheese board. There’s nothing worse than sitting down to a cheese board that has 12 kinds of cheese to get through; it’s so overwhelming and confusing and you’re probably eating in an environment in which you just want to chat with people. So there’s something about having a beautiful piece of cheese that you can eat a little bit of and come back to.

“Buy a piece big enough for the amount of people but make sure to get a slice in which you are able to taste all the different parts, that way you can get to experience all of the cheese.”

What about cooking with cheese? Sacrilege?
“It’s funny, I was talking with a relatively new cheese maker and I was telling them with great pleasure about how I had melted some of their cheese on top of mushrooms and put it in a taco and they were just horrified, and asked ‘How could you cook with our cheese? That’s so insulting!’

“It was so delicious and I think it highlighted a lot of the character of the cheese. It was even better melty and stretched and sort of warm and aromatic. It was beautiful.

“Having two sorts of cheese – the normal everyday cheese that you cook with and then the special occasion cheese – is completely missing the point. There is nothing better than cooking even the most prosaic dish with a really great piece of cheese because it just elevates it to the next level.

“For example, when we go to Neal’s Yard Creamery, where we make cheese, we have slices of Ragstone that’s been grilled in the oven on top of toasted bread. It’s perfect.”