This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in December 2016.
"I don't like cheeses with things hiding in them. Candied lemon. Worcestershire sauce. Marmite," Patricia Michelson, owner of London cheese shop La Fromagerie, wrinkles her nose. "No. Have the cheese and have the lovely things alongside it, so you can appreciate the cheese and come to love it."
Michelson loves cheese. Truly, madly, passionately. A cheeseboard is a thing of wonder to her, its construction a skill equal to that of the highest culinary master. In front of her is arrayed what she deems to be the ultimate Christmas cheeseboard, and I have to confess, I'm quite excited by it.
"When you think about a cheeseboard, you want to navigate it from soft to hard, light to a little more earthy," she says with the twinkle of a woman who is about to lead you on the most thrilling adventure.
"You want to start by cleansing and neutralising your palate from whatever else you've been eating. The best way to do it is with goat cheese. That has a natural acidity to it that's almost like brushing your teeth," Michelson explains, slicing off a gobbet of Ste Maure from Touraine. "In fact if you've ever forgotten your toothbrush, just call down to room service and ask for a little fresh goat cheese. It works. I discussed it with my dentist."
The Ste Maure does not, be reassured, taste like toothpaste. It's tangy and fresh.
"If we had some white wine that would be absolutely lovely," Michelson says with satisfaction, before continuing the journey around the board to a Soumaintrain from Burgundy. "This is like a younger version of an Époisse which is very stinky and smelly. I really think you shouldn't be too offensive by way of smells on a cheeseboard. It puts people off."
She picks up the Soumaintrain and gives it a sniff before handing it over for me to do the same. It's not overpowering at all.
"It has a slight light smell of the cellar, but it's not a stinker that smells of armpits."
Instead, it's buttery and rich with a slight nutty edge and salty tang.
"You could taste it with an apple or some nuts," Michelson suggests, "and drink it with white or red. Or even cider."
Next along is a beautiful slab of Beaufort, a French cheese made from raw cow's milk.
"This is what started me," says Michelson. "I was skiing in the Savoie and after a bad day, I went hunting for cheese. I fell in love with this. It's like Gruyére but much more elegant."
The Beaufort is a "Chalet D'Alpage" cheese, which means the cows were grazed on Alpine pastures exclusively used for grazing in the summer. They're milked there and the cheese is made there.
"It's a great morning cheese," Michelson comments, nibbling a chunk. "Because it's had a slow maturing [you can tell because the cheese has a 'waist' where the whey has drained out] it's got a lot of concentrated energy. If you've not had time for breakfast, that'll set you up for the day."
As we move around the boards, the flavours are getting gradually stronger. Saint Nectaire is next, "a musty, dusty smelling cheese," followed by a Brie.
"Now we come to something more special," says Michelson. "We've used Tunworth which is an English Brie from Hampshire and cut it in half to give it a filling of truffle cream."
If you were to listen to the recording of my conversation at this point, what you'd hear are slightly muffled moans of quiet ecstasy.
"You've got the Brie texture that's nutty and with a crushed leaves sort of earthiness, and then you've got the earthiness of the truffle but the lightness of the cream around it which makes it absolutely gorgeous," she explains.
"Uh hmm," I reply.
"Keep it towards the end because it has such a lot of flavour. In fact you could just serve this on its own. With a glass of dry Champagne."
But there's more.
"This is Vacherin, which you can have cold or hot."
Michelson peels back the rind, sticks in a teaspoon, and pulls out a scoop that looks like clotted cream.
"It's beautiful like this, but you can bake it. Brush over a little white wine, put the skin back on top, wrap it in foil, and stick it in a hot, hot oven for about 20 minutes," she explains. "Push back the skin again and you've got fondue. If you're feeling indulgent, shave over some truffles. And there's no washing up."
We're at the final call now: the almost obligatory blue Stilton.
"It's lovely and traditional," Michelson says simply. "And then you can start all over again or go wherever you want."
The Biscuits and Relish
"Walnuts go well with Stilton," she explains, gesturing towards a pile of lovely fruits and nuts in the corner of the board. "And almonds go nicely with hard Gruyére-type cheeses."
Michelson is a strong believer in tasting the cheese first, and then finding something that brings out one of its flavours without overpowering it. The Soumaintrain with apple perhaps, celery with hard English cheeses like cheddar.
"The other thing is the biscuits. They need to be not too salty, not too sweet, not too thick. It's meant to be a vehicle for the cheese, not taking over. The cheese is the star."
She demonstrates by plonking a fair wodge of one of the softer cheeses onto a biscuit.
"I hate it when people spread cheese," she says, before taking a bite. "I much prefer it when people pop it on top. I like to munch through it."
But nothing comes between Michelson and her cheese, not even a lack of knives. Throughout our conversation, she's been wielding an impressive array of different blades.
"They're such evocative things," she comments. "You need a chopper for the really hard cheese like Gouda. A classic cheese knife for cutting and picking up. One for grating. A slicer for making fat curls of cheese. And this one."
She holds up a knife that looks like half a bow-saw.
"I had this made by swordmakers in Italy to my design. I needed a knife that's good for giving a good clean cut through semi-soft cheeses like Gorgonzola."
That's a lot of knives, I comment.
"They all have a job to do," Michelson replies. "But if all else fails, use a good sharp kitchen knife."
Is she as particular about her plates, I wonder.
"Do you know, with four people sitting around the board I don't bother. Eat from the board, talk about the cheese, get a little bit messy."
Cheese for teeth-cleaning. Cheese for breakfast. Cheese on biscuits. Cheese on a spoon. Cheese with port, with cider, with Champagne. For Michelson, as long as there's good cheese on your board, work away.
And the Vegans?
"Have you ever tried vegan cheese?" asks Michelson. "It's disgusting."
The biscuit and relish end of the board is the vegan territory.
"I'd make the most wonderful tray of seeds and nuts and fruit and fig rolls soaked in port. Apples, pears, and dates. It would be so delightful they wouldn't feel like they were missing out."
Personally, I'd stick with the cheese.