In the 1970s, there were only a few people making farmhouse cheese in Ireland. Today, though, there are around 50 artisan cheesemakers producing 130 different cheeses, so there’s more choice and variety than ever. But with so much choice, it can be hard to know where to start or what to choose, so I met Elisabeth Ryan from Sheridans Cheesemongers at their Dublin shop to ask her how to assemble the perfect Irish farmhouse cheese board.
What Cheeses to Choose
“There are different ways to do a cheese board,” Elisabeth says, “but a good rule of thumb is to have three cheeses – one hard cheese, one soft/semi-soft cheese and one blue cheese.” Another option is to have one cow’s milk, one sheep’s milk and one goat’s milk cheese. If you want to push the boat out a little and add a fourth cheese, Elisabeth suggests going for an oddity, like something with a strong washed rind. However, you should avoid smoked or flavoured cheeses, since they will overpower the other cheeses. No matter what cheeses you choose, don’t forget that cheese is best served at room temperature, so make sure you take it out of the fridge at least an hour before you want to serve it.
Three Cheese Boards to Try
I asked Elisabeth what Irish farmhouse cheeses she would put together on a board and she wound up giving me three different board suggestions. But these aren’t hard and fast guidelines – at the end of the day, you should choose the cheeses you like best. For my board in the photo, I went with two of her three suggestions for the strong board but swapped out the Milleens for the Durrus.
- The Crowd Pleaser: Gubbeen, Hegarty’s Cheddar and Cooleeney.
- The Subtle Board: Triskel or St Tola, Glebe Brethan and Durrus.
- The Strong Board: Coolea, Milleens and Bellingham Blue.
Appearance is important in a cheese board. Elisabeth recommends serving large portions of cheese, which look more dramatic. If you want something beautiful to present your cheese on, check out Bunbury Boards for a unique range of wooden cutting boards that would do double duty as a rustic serving platter or Slated for handmade slate cheese boards (shown in the photo).
Extras to Serve with Cheese
Adding extras to the board, such as fruit, crackers or chutney, will look good and will add variety. Elisabeth noted that sweet, dense, soft fruits work best with cheese, such as grapes, figs or pears, as well as other sweet things like black cherry jam, quince jelly, fig compote or honey. Or try drizzling some Highbank Orchard Syrup over a sharp cheddar (such as Hegarty’s or Mt Callan), like New Englanders in the US do with their boiled apple cider syrup, or for the holidays, these sparkling cranberries would look beautiful on a cheese plate.
Crackers or bread are a must. Choose a neutral cracker that won’t compete with the cheese (or even make your own), oatcakes, which work particularly well with blue cheese, or thinly sliced crusty bread. A fruit and nut bread, such as Nigel Slater’s fig and hazelnut loaf, Dan Lepard’s fig, honey and wine loaf cake or even panforte during the holidays would also work well. Sheridans has just launched their own range of crackers and the brown bread ones are a new favourite for me, while Robert Ditty’s traditional or smoked oatcakes are hard to beat.
What to Drink with Cheese
Even though wine has traditionally been served with cheese, Elisabeth thinks it’s actually very difficult to pair them together. There’s a new trend now to match artsian cheese with craft beer instead. Speaking at a session during Foodcamp at the Savour Kilkenny food festival in October, Claire Dalton from Dungarvan Brewing Company said this isn’t just a case of sticking two Irish products together arbitrarily. She said there would have been a tradition in the UK and Ireland of drinking beer with cheese – it was a case of using what you had and what we had was beer, while France and Italy had wine. Plus the carbonation in beer nicely cuts through the fat in cheese. Bord Bia put together some notes on pairing Irish cheese and craft beer for their first Farmhouse Cheese and Craft Beer Weekend earlier this year, so check it out for lots of suggestions.
- No time to hand pick your cheeses for a cheese board? Check out the selection of hampers at Sheridans Cheesemongers.
- Farmhouse Cheeses of Ireland: A Celebration by Glynn Anderson and John McLaughlin will tell you everything you ever wanted to know about Irish artisan cheeses and is a must for any food lover’s bookshelf.
- Bord Bia has put together a free downloadable guide to many of the farmhouse cheeses of Ireland, available here as a booklet or wall planner.
- Check out this post by food writer Aoife Carrigy about why cheese makes a fantastic Christmas gift.
- If you love Irish farmhouse cheese, you might also like my recipes for Irish farmhouse mac and cheese, which is perfect for using up the leftover odds and ends of a cheeseboard, or beef, beer and blue cheese pot pies, steak sandwiches with a Cashel Blue butter or potato, cheddar and rosemary bread.