Chairwoman of the cheeseboard
Inside Paxton and Whitfield’s Jermyn Street shop just off Piccadilly in central London, the air is distinctly chilly. But the woman I have come to meet, shop manager Hero Hirsh, is clear that is exactly how it should be. Not because the smart customers of the venerable London cheesemongers are already swathed against the cold, but because it is the temperature the cheese prefers. Paxton and Whitfield may have held a Royal Warrant for 200 years, but here the cheese is king.
“It is 12C in here, the same temperature we keep the maturing room in the basement. It’s the temperature cheesemakers use to ripen their cheeses,” the 32-year-old explains, leading me past the counter laden with everything from Cheddar to chaorce, and Manchego to mascarpone.
Hirsh, named (confusingly) after the heroine of a tragic Greek love story, discovered her love of cheese while working as a pastry chef. Last year she was acclaimed as Cheesemonger of the Year and is one of the brightest young experts in the cheese world, quietly authoritative and with a dairymaid complexion to boot. No better person, surely, to provide the low-down on the cheeriest cheeseboard for Christmas and beyond. We settle in the P& W back room for a spot of cheese chat.
The first question is how many cheeses is enough? Less is definitely more, according to Hirsh. “I think four is the most – after that your palate becomes confused,” she declares. “Nice, healthy-looking chunks of a few cheeses – that is much better than lots and lots of little bits of things that you will definitely forget the names of – and so will everyone you are serving.”
For four cheeses, Hirsh would choose a blue, a creamy, a hard and a goat’s or sheep’s milk cheese. “If I had three cheeses I would say a hard, a soft and a blue. If I had two then a hard and a soft. One stand-alone cheese? That’s too difficult… probably a blue, as they are so multifaceted.”
To prove her point, Hirsh cuts me off some slivers of creamy Stilton to nibble as she continues. “Aim for a range of strength from mild to strong. Or you can put a cheeseboard together on a theme, so you can have just blue cheeses, or goats – a soft goat, a hard goat, a goat Gouda.” And how much should I buy? Hirsh laughs. “Well, how much do you want left over? 100-125g per person is enough – but it depends how lavish you want to be.”
Storing the cheese well is key too, explains Hirsh. “You need to control the humidity and the temperature.” While 12C, which would equate to a wintertime garage or a cellar, is great for taking a soft cheese like a whole Brie from firm to perfectly runny, once the cheese is ripe it is better kept in the fridge at about 5C.
The salad crisper drawer is the best spot, as it is more humid than other parts of the fridge. But don’t wrap your cheese in cling film as it will get too sweaty, and if you use a plastic cheese box, keep the lid ajar so that the air can get in. Too tight a seal – whether in a box or cling film – and bitter flavours start to form on the outside, which in turn form moulds.
“When you peel back a bit of cling film on a piece of cheese and you can see a high shine you know the cheese has been sweating – that will be slightly bitter – so I would scrape the surface of the cheese before I served it,” counsels Hirsh.
But it’s better to avoid cling film altogether. A piece of wax paper is the best wrapping (Paxton and Whitfield sell all their cheese in wax paper, naturally) although a piece of greaseproof paper will do as well.
How long the cheese lasts depends on when it was cut from the large piece – precut pieces, the kind that languish in vacuum packs in the chill cabinet, will last less long than pieces that have been cut from a large piece in front of you. But as a rule of thumb, hard cheeses last two weeks, soft for a week. “After that time they start to change,” explains Hirsh. “A blue cheese becomes more blue, a hard cheese starts to dry, a soft cheese might turn more liquid and form escape plans. That’s not to say they are not good. But they will only be as they were when you bought them for one to two weeks, kept in the fridge.”
Judging when a Camembert-type cheese is ripe can be tricky. Look for a bit of pink or brown on the surface, rather than a pure bright white. If it is sticky, then it is overripe. “But also touch it – Camembert ripens from the outside in, unlike Stilton say, which ripens from the inside out. You can feel if there is a soft “heart” to the cheese. If it is bouncy, springing back, it needs another week or two.”
We dig into an exquisitely ripe round Vacherin, creamy and glossy as a pot of magnolia paint. Cheese nirvana – as long as I keep my coat on.
Yellow fever: Hero Hirsh at work at Paxton and Whitfield