Chefs can be forgiven for having difficulty with the bewildering variety of cheeses on the market today. The answer is to find a good supplier, say the experts. Noella Pio Kivlehan reports
We are, at present, living in a good period for cheese. Ever more varieties are appearing on an expanding market, which currently offers about 500 to choose from, according to market research company Mintel.
And the UK regional cheese market, boosted two years ago by EU legislation to protect names of cheeses such as Blue Stilton and Single Gloucester, is booming.
Mintel estimates regional cheeses have captured 16% of the market, and even the largest manufacturers are keen to upgrade cheese from commodity status to a specialist branded product.
However, this positive growth has still to be fully reflected on the nation's cheeseboards, which should be brimming with all sorts of tempting offerings - but are not. Many chefs and caterers are still struggling with the age-old problems of how best to present the board and how many cheeses should go on it.
The fact that Cheddar still remains the most popular type of cheese (accounting for 50% of all retail sales) should not let chefs get away with offering bland boards to what they might consider an uninterested audience. There is an opportunity to introduce the public to a wider range of tastes. Some chefs, too, could also improve their own knowledge, and this is where a good cheese supplier comes in.
It is a widely held belief among suppliers that a majority of chefs do not know their cheese varieties from their elbows. So the responsibility for many a good cheeseboard lies with a reputable supplier.
Martyn Letall of Neal's Yard, which supplies cheeses to about 300 customers, half of which are chefs, says the lack of knowledge among chefs surprises him. "I have met chefs who have asked me for a Lancashire Cheddar! I would have thought that chefs, particularly head chefs, would know something more about cheese. Their knowledge, or lack of it, does have an impact on the rest of the staff, so we strive to educate them."
Letall tries to get out to talk to chefs and to explain exactly what the varieties of cheeses are and how they should be used. After all, he says, the reputation of his company's cheese is also on show to the customers.
Picking the right supplier, therefore, is as important as choosing the right cheese. Writer and cheese connoisseur Juliet Harbutt urges chefs who are on the hunt for cheeses to take a step back and have a long, hard look at their suppliers. "[A chef should] look at their cheese supplier in the same way they look at their vegetable supplier," she says. "You want to expect your cheeses fresh and ripe, but unfortunately suppliers don't always supply them that way."
Harbutt, who is organising the British Cheese Awards in September, advises that if a supplier is not up to scratch chefs should use a local supplier who will know a lot more about their own produce.
When a chef does find a good cheese supplier it can change his entire cheeseboard, and possibly his life. David Everitt-Matthias, chef-proprietor of Le Champignon Sauvage in Cheltenham, admits his board used to be predominantly French until 18 months ago when he found a new supplier - the Fine Cheese Company, also based in Cheltenham.
He says: "I couldn't find a good supplier and I didn't want to buy 30 types of cheese to find out which ones I liked, but this way I could go round there and sample them for myself."
Everitt-Matthias now offers his customers 28 varieties, the most popular being Stilton, Fourme d'Ambert (blue) and Langres, a cows' milk cheese. "I tend to buy cheeses and keep them until they are at the correct ripeness. I think it is all part of a good restaurant to have a good cheeseboard," he says.
But how many cheeses should a board have? Too many and customers can be confused; too few and they will be unimpressed by the choice.
Antony Worrall Thompson believes the days of cooking "poncey" 1980s food is gone, and the fashion in England is moving towards peasant-style food. Bold ideas, but with his latest London-based restaurant Woz, which has adopted an easy-going theme, he has shown it can work. He has, perhaps, gone to an extreme, serving only one type of cheese per night on his daily changing menu. Among his preferences are the Irish Cashel Blue, the French Brie and the Spanish Picos de Europa (blue).
Harbutt is also keen on restaurants offering one type of cheese, but for different reasons. She says: "I love having loads of cheese to choose from, but maybe for a small restaurant, or for those testing cheese, it is better to have one stunning variety." And for this one "stunning" cheese Harbutt recommends using a blue, which also happens to be one of the fastest-growing varieties of cheese, with Mintel revealing that it is eaten by two-thirds of the UK population.
While offering one cheese may suit the "dinner party" atmosphere of Woz, other chefs believe they would have a problem with giving only one choice.
Eric Faussurier, executive chef at the Portmarnock Hotel & Golf Links, Portmarnock, County Dublin, considers having one cheese is probably a practical issue, but that at least five different types should be offered. Fellow County Dublin restaurateur Terry McCoy, chef-proprietor of the Redbank Restaurant, Skerries, agrees. In his restaurant he actively supports local Irish cheeses by offering Gubbeen (semi-soft cheese), Dunbara Irish soft cheese, Boille (goats' cheese), and Milleens (a semi-soft cheese).
From the supplier's point of view, Jonathan Archer of the Huge Cheese Company, which supplies MarcoPierre White, considers a basic cheeseboard of up to six choices is a good starter for any mainstream restaurant. These should include a blue, a hard, goats', ewes', a wash rind and a triple or double crème such as Camembert or Pierre Robert.
Archer is also a firm believer in restaurants and hotels putting one person in charge of their cheese. This, he says, can help triple profits from the cheeseboard. He cites the example of one top London restaurant owner whose profits went up from £200 to £600 per week when he took an avid interest in his cheese buying.
When should the cheeseboard be served? Should it be before the sweet, so continuing the savourypart of the meal (the style adopted in Continental Europe, though in this case the entire meal is based around having cheese, so the portions are smaller)?
Should it be after the dessert, to allow guests to linger over the cheese and sip port? Or, perhaps, along with the sweet course itself?
Serving the cheese before the sweet is, after all, profitable to the chef and gastronomically beneficial to the customer. This way the cheese is seen as an integral part of the meal - not an alternative to the dessert. Harbutt supports this course of action as she believes it is also essential in matching the wine. "You wouldn't have a pudding wine and then a red wine." On the downside there is a danger that strong cheeses will overpower a light dessert. Conclusively it is down to the palate of the diner.
And what should a chef offer with his cheeseboard? Bread, or biscuits, or grapes, or all three? Everitt-Matthias is an advocate of serving cheese with bread, either white, granary or wholemeal. Peter Leyland-Jones, head chef at the Belfry, Warwickshire, shares this view, but he normally favours a banana bread.
A warm apricot bread was the choice to accompany a cheeseboard with a difference served at a gala dinner held in March at the Belfry, marking the first trial run of the UK Epicurean World Master Chefs Society team. Leyland-Jones says Cashel Blue cheese was puréed with port and a goats' cheese was puréed with cream.
He says they were deliberately trying to be experimental because it was a special evening, but he admits this modern version of a cheeseboard did not go down well with all guests, although the bread did. He also thinks that in some high street restaurants customers might think the chef, by puréeing the cheese, was just trying to get rid of old products.
He adds: "To be honest, I don't think it will catch on. A chef in a normal environment couldn't afford to take the chance. If you have a good cheese, why bastardise it?" He believes that cheeses of all types should be left alone to prove their own qualities and for customers to enjoy as they want.