The Cheeseboard

If you were among the thousands of cheese lovers who headed to Sturminster Newton for this year’s record-breaking Cheese Festival, you probably bought a selection of the delights on offer, took them home and put them in the fridge. Wrong! Here’s how to do it …

Dude, where’s my cheese?

foodCheeseboardTHE size of fridges has grown exponentially over the last 50 years. Once a small cube where only the most precious perishable goods would be stored, the average domestic machine is now a vast storehouse for almost everything purchased from the grocer. My parents (born in the 1920s) thought it ridiculous that items such as marmalade would now have “once opened, store in refrigerator” on the label.

In my shop, we aim for a temperature of 5 degrees in the cheese chillers. This stops rapid ripening, yet allows the cheese to continue to mature naturally, while preserving shelf-life. But cheese eaten straight from that chilled environment will not reveal its full potential. When we offer tasters in the shop we scrape hard cheeses, warming the sample a little, or we take very thin slices of soft cheeses which warm swiftly in the ambient temperature. Why is this important? Bringing the cheese up to an approximation of room temperature allows the oils present in the cheese to become volatile, rather than trapped in the paste, and thus able to stimulate our smell and taste receptors.

Enjoyment of food engages almost all the senses: obviously taste, but also touch/texture, sight/visual appeal, smell/aroma and in the case of the snapping, crackling and popping breakfast cereal, perhaps even sound as well. When I offer cheese to friends at home, or supply cheese for a party, I make sure that the cheese is brought up to room temperature. People comment that they’ve never tasted better! Not only are the smells and tastes optimised, but texture can change too. Soft cheeses have a chance to run, semi-hard ones become joyously pliant and hard cheeses become easier to cut without cracking.

How should one store cheese at home? Hopefully, you’ll have made your purchases somewhere that wrapped your cheese in waxed paper – it’s the best medium for keeping the cheese in top condition. Cling film has its uses, but as the ambient temperature rises, can retain the moisture “sweated” by the cheese, encouraging bacterial growth. Nonetheless, I use it on the cut edges of softer cheeses – or to fully wrap a truly smelly cheese such as the aptly named Stinking Bishop.

Very few of us have the luxury of a proper larder these days – ideally in a cool recess of the house, with a marble shelf to maintain an even lower temperature for dairy goods. Larders are, however, possibly the optimum environment in which to store cheese that one wants to enjoy in the near future. A cheese safe is a worthwhile investment for cheese lovers with larder space. Close mesh allows air to circulate around the cheeses while keeping out insects and other predators. To stop cheeses drying out a moistened tea towel can be placed loosely over the wrapped assembly.

Even though our house was built in the Georgian period, it has been subdivided, so we have no larder space, and like the majority of my customers, we rely on the good old fridge. My tip for fridge storage of cheese – apart from remembering to bring it out well in advance of serving – is to keep blue cheeses and ‘white’ ones separate, providing different knives for cutting each cheese so that your delightful Brie doesn’t morph into a Roquefort-blighted mongrel. Wrap the cheeses individually, re-using the waxed paper in which it was sold. If you’ve had to resort to cling-film, then please use a fresh piece each time the cheese is put away; it’s not expensive and a fresh piece will seal better and not have all kinds of whatever folded back onto the cheese. If you have a particularly smelly cheese, perhaps keep that one in a tupperware box. Cheese, being predominantly fat, can absorb a lot of other smells, so if you have smelly Mackerel paté or suchlike in the same fridge, pop that paté into a sealed container to keep the aroma out of the Cheddar.

I’m often asked if one can freeze cheese. Some of the Stilton producers “deep-chill” portions in advance of Christmas to avoid a massive spike in production (the ones we sell are not treated in this way). I advise against it. While the cheese can be frozen quite easily if it’s in small enough pieces, the defrosting can trap moisture in the heart of the paste, affecting texture and in time, lead to degradation. There’s one exception: Parmigiano Reggiano (or Parmesan) can be grated from frozen as easily as from the fridge, so unless it is to be eaten as a table cheese, wrap it tightly in cling-film and pop it in the freezer. Either grate the rind or use in a stew or casserole. No more dried out pieces in the fridge!

Justin Tunstall, Town Mill Cheesemonger, Lyme Regis DT7 3PU

Pictured is a Shaker-style cheese larder.