Perfect cheeses - and what to serve with them. Six experts share their favourites.
ACCORDING TO THE OLD WIVES' tale, cheese too close to bedtime causes nightmares. But asking fromage fanciers about this collaboration between man and beast turns them into beautiful dreamers.
They have no hesitation in declaring what constitutes the perfect cheeseboard. Of the experts we spoke to, few cheeses appeared on two wish-lists. It might be tempting to conclude that the ultimate cheeseboard would comprise a nibble from all of them. This would be a mistake, because the one thing they all agree on is that the combination of cheeses in any one presentation must be a study of complementary flavours and textures if the cheeseboard is to paint a Monet rather than a muddy still life.
A veiny wedge, a crumbly brick, a furry white rind … such visions transport cheese lovers to cellars on French mountain tops filled with ageing wheels of every shade of yellow, blue, white or cream. They see cows chewing flowers in springtime meadows, or a grandmother tending her milking goats in Burgundy.
Determined opinions exist about accompaniments. Crackers, apparently, are out. Quince paste is divisive. Cherries, apricot paste and beer are touted for their cheese-enhancing qualities.
Here, then, are the cheeseboards of which dreams are made.
This ''Maitre Fromager'' (an honour bestowed by France), author and TV presenter nominates Roquefort Carles as the king of cheeses. ''It's my personal favourite.''
There is only a handful of Roquefort producers in France and this one stands out because the Carles family makes it by hand. It would play a starring role on Studd's cheeseboard, particularly in June, when it's at its best. ''It has character, with a delicious, sweet, creamy, salty finish.''
At Christmas, Studd's first choice is a cheese that originated in the 18th century, Colston Bassett Stilton, from Nottinghamshire, England. ''It's made from autumn milk and the curd is hand-ladled, which means it doesn't break and the curd holds its moisture.''
Studd says that with the acquired taste of a Roquefort, he would add a ''crowd-pleaser'' such as a French Brillat-Savarin triple cream to the platter. He may also sneak in the ''sweet, nutty flavour'' of Comte Marcel Petite . At Fort Saint Antoine, a mountain-top fort where soldiers once lay in wait fearing Prussian invasion, thousands of wheels of this cheese now sit peacefully ageing in the damp cellars.
Studd says there's nothing quite like the pleasure of a cheese that ''genuinely reflects its regional provenance''. You are rewarded with ''a kaleidoscope of satisfying flavours''.
In the cellars of Modena, Italy, can be found one more of his selection, Cravero parmigiano reggiano. ''It's a two-year-old cheese, still moist and crumbly. There's an awful lot of old parmesan [being sold] but this has sweetness.''
And with the cheese, Studd would serve bread. ''Biscuits interfere with the whole experience.'' Also, serve cheese before dessert. ''Nothing annoys me more than cheese served with coffee.''
French vigneron Gilles Lapalus makes wine at Sutton Grange in central Victoria and his first cheese choice is Victoria's Holy Goat fromage frais because it tastes like home. ''I was pretty pleased to find it when I arrived here in 2001. It's a memory trigger. My grandmother had goats in Burgundy. I remember as a child eating her one-day-old goat cheese. You could taste the grass, the essence of spring.''
Rather than a cheeseboard, Lapalus would serve cheeses singly, with a wine to match each. ''It's very difficult to find one wine to go with two cheeses.''
After serving a light, fruity red and sourdough with the fromage frais, he would bring out Charolais goat's cheese from Burgundy with a white wine. (As it is an unpasteurised product, it's unlikely to be available in Australia.)
His third cheese of choice is Saint-Nectaire Fermier, yet another delicacy Australian laws will require you to go overseas to sample. They've been eating it in France since Louis XIV's time but its raw-milk status keeps it locked out of Australia. Words such as roasted, nutty, aromatic and earthy are sprinkled through Lapalus' description. ''Sometimes I eat the rind, for the salt crystals. It's an interesting contrast.''
Completing the cheese course is Comte d'Ete, cut from a 40-kilogram wheel matured for up to two years. It's made with milk from cows who dine on Jura high-country wildflowers. He would serve it with a French vin jaune and walnut bread.
''I love cheese. The more I know about it, the more I love it,'' says cook and author Maggie Beer. Her perfect cheeseboard would have two cheeses only, but would suggest bounty. ''I can't bear small pieces. There has to be largesse about it. I would serve huge wedges.''
One would be ''perfectly ripe and oozy'', the specific cheese determined by the season, such as South Australia's Woodside Cheese Wrights' Charleston, made with Jersey milk, and the other something firm such as a sharp Pyengana cheddar from Tasmania or an English Montgomery cheddar. ''It's got an amazing flavour,'' Beer says. (It is, apparently, just a memory now for Australia's cheese lovers since the cheesemaker reverted to making it with raw milk.)
Beer says another of her favourites is also not available here, Vermont's Cabot cheddar. However, she also loves Australia's Island Pure Kangaroo Island manchego, based on the Spanish manchego from La Mancha, which will soon be available again after a milk shortage.
Her favourite accompaniment for the soft cheese is a Scottish-style oatmeal biscuit, or her own apricot paste, and a chilled, sweet white wine. Muscatels are her pick to go up against the salty sharpness of cheddar and she says quince paste has ''an amazing ability'' to complement many cheeses, particularly manchego.
While the question of when to serve cheese produces a variety of opinions, there's an easy rule in the Beer home; if the red wine has been drunk, serve cheese before dessert. Otherwise, present it after.
In the 1980s, before becoming a politician, Amanda Vanstone had a small business in Adelaide selling cheeses wholesale and still enjoys preparing an interesting cheeseboard.
''The perfect board would not be too complicated. I'd be inclined to pick two or three types of cheese and serve two of each type. For example, take two hard cheeses - one cow and one sheep - and let people taste the differences. To me, that's interesting. Or take a gorgonzola dolce latte and a Stilton and see the contrast as an opportunity to learn.''
Pairing two ricottas, such as buffalo and sheep's milk, with the fresh cherry paste she makes at home and a plain bread is also a winner. She embraces her experiences in Italy, of being served jam with cheese, and suggests glace fruits such as cumquats. While not casting aspersions on the product, ''quince paste has become like Vegemite, really''.
Kirkegaard is a Brisbane-based beer expert, writing and broadcasting on the subject. He believes matching cheese with beer can be even more exciting than traditional wine pairings. ''A sip of beer between cheese bites cleans out the taste buds. The flavours last longer,'' he says.
It's all about the bubbles and bitterness of beer, but it's a hard sell. ''It's difficult to get cheese lovers into beer matching. Beer is not seen as something for serious dining.''
He advises starting with a Roquefort Carles, accompanied by a Scotch ale. Jindi Old Telegraph Road Fire Engine Red works with a Belgian strong, dark ale. There would be Mount Vikos Barrel Aged Fetta from Greece, matched with a Hefeweizen, a German-style beer. ''Both have intense flavours and the beer brings out that in the cheese,'' Kirkegaard says. Finally, he loves Kingaroy Cheese Bunya Black, from Queensland, with a Belgian or French farmhouse-style ale. He advises leaving VB for pizza.
Despite sometimes being dubbed the Queen of Desserts, chef Philippa Sibley doesn't have a sweet tooth. But such is her enthusiasm for cheese that it can be hard to pin down her perfect cheeseboard.
She starts with Pyengana cheddar. ''It's Australia's best cheddar.'' She pictures it served with peach-and-ginger chutney and sourdough or rye bread. Alongside she would serve Soignon aged goat's cheese, drizzled with honey as well as salted and crumbled rosemary and figs.
Sibley suddenly has a better idea. ''At my perfect dinner party I would have a Brie de Nangis. When I'm particularly eccentric, I slice it through the middle and stick truffles in it.'' And yet another idea: ''Here is the ultimate, - Roquefort with fresh pears and a 1967 Chateau d'Yquem (sauterne).''
She insists cheese be served before dessert. Afterwards is ''bonkers''.
And then she can't help mentioning a summer platter of French triple-cream brie with cherries and smoked almonds. Perfect.
Import ban's bitter divide
CHEESE aficionados lament that the best cheeseboards in Australia will still not measure up to international standards because of import bans on cheese made with unpasteurised milk.
"The benchmark cheeses of the world are made from raw milk," cheese specialist Will Studd says. "We are missing out."
He won a test case in 2004 that lifted restrictions on Roquefort, but all other soft and blue raw-milk cheeses remain locked out of Australia.
In recent years, some hard cheeses made from raw milk have been allowed in, but Studd doubts the food standards authority will relax the rules further any time soon.
Winemaker Gilles Lapalus describes pasteurisation as an interference. "The more you manipulate, the more you lose flavour,'' he says.
Amanda Vanstone agrees Australia should be open to raw-milk delicacies and urges a can-do approach. "I helped Will Studd's case by putting him in touch with the right people,'' she says. ''The Roquefort case shows it can be done. The importers have to do their work. The path is there for them to follow."
To get an idea of what we're missing out on, Studd recommends trying Le Conquerant, a pasteurised camembert from Normandy. "It's as close as we can get in Australia to a real camembert made from raw milk."
For cheeses not listed, contact your local cheesemonger.
■ Roquefort Carles Richmond Hill Cafe and Larder, Richmond
■ Colston Bassett Stilton Cornehls and Blackburn Butchers, Mont Albert; Richmond Hill Cafe and Larder, Richmond; Stocked Foodstore, Hawksburn
■ Brillat Savarin Leo's Fine Food and Wine, Hartwell, Heidelberg, Kew
■ Comte Marcel Petite Cornehls and Blackburn Butchers, Mont Albert; Leaf Store, Elwood
■ Comte d'Ete Provata Urban Larder and Cafe, Ascot Vale, Mulberry's Delicatessen, Castlemaine
■ Cravero parmigiano reggiano Provata Urban Larder and Cafe, Ascot Vale
■ Holy Goat fromage frais Key Ingredients, Clifton Hill
■ Saint-Nectaire Fermier The French Shop, Queen Victoria Market
■ Pyengana cheddar King & Godfree, Carlton
■ Island Pure Kangaroo Island manchego Victorian distributor Bill's Farm, 9328 2003
■ Mount Vikos Barrel Aged Feta Toscano's, Hawksburn, Kew, Victoria Gardens
■ Bunya Black Plans to distribute in Victoria and NSW next year
■ Jindi Old Telegraph Road Fire Engine Red Leo's Fine Food and Wine, Hartwell, Heidelberg, Kew
■ Soignon Woolworths
■ Buche d'Affinois Louie's Deli and Cafe, Malvern
■ Brie de Nangis Jones the Grocer, Doncaster, Chadstone; Richmond Hill, Richmond
■ Le Conquerant Bill's Farm, Queen Victoria Market; Richmond Hill , Richmond