As snaps of well-curated wedges take off on Instagram, here's a look at how to make the perfect board.
Have you seen what the influencers of Instagram are up to now? Tired of posing for selfies while dining in the latest "it" restaurant, with armfuls of designer shopping bags, or in the pool as they sip sundowners in an exotic location, they have finally discovered the relatively low-key pleasures of ... the cheeseboard.
A well put-together platter was once the preserve of the middle-aged dinner party. But, in the hands of the social media-savvy generation, it's being taken to the next level altogether.
Long gone are the days when a few hunks of blue, brie and camembert, topped off by a bunch of grapes and slices of quince paste, raises a murmur from appreciative house guests. These days, it's not a cheeseboard unless you're displaying your bounty like a 16th-century still life.
And it's not complete unless the cheeses in question - we'll get to those shortly - are surrounded by wedges of dripping honeycomb, a tumble of pistachios, pretzels, popcorn, artichoke hearts leaving a slug's trail of olive oil, peppy pink slices of grapefruit, and, for some reason, orchids.
Meanwhile, the hashtag #cheeseboard has clocked up half a million posts, #cheeseboardsofinstagram collates the most outstanding examples of "cheeseboarding" - as the online art form has inevitably been called - and it's de rigueur to refer to yourself as a "cheesefluencer" in your online bio. The brains behind the @thatcheeseplate account, which has racked up about 140,000 followers, recently told Harper's Bazaar how she'd given up her day job to become one full time.
Cheeseboarding is a growing industry, with around 150 firms offering the service in Britain, according to Toria Smith of caterer Grape and Fig, which provides "grazing tables" - at £295 ($560) a metre.
"When I got married, I didn't want stuffy canapes," Smith says. Catering companies offered cheeseboards, but none "got the aesthetic I wanted. They were doing celery and grapes in ramekins, so I had to style and design it all myself - on the morning of my wedding". She now runs the business full time as demand for these artfully styled cornucopias is so high. Her spreads are so instagrammable that Instagram itself is a client. "People spend less on their decor now, because the table is a big part of the decoration," Toria says.
Desperate to get a slice of the action, I head to Jermyn Street in London, to Paxton and Whitfield, one of the country's oldest cheesemongers, to try my hand at cheeseboarding - and to tell if it's just a flash in the paneer.
The 200-year-old shop is a leader in British industry: the big cheese of Big Cheese, if you will. As soon as I arrive, I realise I have dressed spectacularly badly for the shop, where the comfort of cheese comes before that of humans. The air is kept in the low double digits - bad news for me, given that I'm wearing a cheesecloth summer dress.
I meet Hero Hirsh, the company's head of retail, who is fully au fait with the cheeseboarding trend. "We've seen a lot of people who want to zhuzh up their cheeseboards," she says. "They want to put on blackberries, blueberries or whatever looks good." To cater for these customers, the shop is rolling out DIY cheeseboard kits, which come with instructions showing how to lay them more attractively.
Hirsh likes any excuse to eat cheese, obviously. (She is even wearing a round badge which proves her level two credentials at the Academy of Cheese.) But she is unsure about pimping a board solely on what looks good: "Don't place things without thinking about the taste," she says. "Cheese is photogenic already."
These days, it's not a cheeseboard unless you're displaying your bounty like a 16th-century still life.
First, we select the cheese. As a rule of thumb, Hirsh suggests about 100 grams per person is a good amount for a dinner party. If there are six of you, three to four types are best: any more and it becomes a mad scramble for who gets what.
I tell her what I believe to be the golden rule of cheeseboards: something hard, something soft, something goat, something blue. "Not a bad start," she says, not entirely convinced.
"The traditional English board is a cheddar, a stilton and a brie, which is hard, blue and soft. We try to get people to branch out of those three varieties, though."
I pick four cheeses. I choose Langres for the soft, a French cheese with a dip in the top: Hirsh says gourmands who don't mind a bit of mess could fill this with champagne. For the blue, I go for fourme d'Ambert, another Frenchie which is served in round slices.
But then I fall straight into the Instagram trap and pick two more based on looks alone: mimolette, a hard cheese stained red with annatto, the natural dye used for red Leicester; and meringue à la lavande, a goat's cheese decorated with a scattering of lavender petals. I then pick some accessories: tiny pots of sweet chutney and dark black charcoal crackers, which will nicely offset the colour of the cheese.
Importantly, cheeseboards now contain meat, too - a shame not to because, as Hirsh explains, "it works so well with drinks, or as part of a bigger grazing table" - so I select a Cornish salami. "A nightmare for vegetarians," she says, but heaven for the rest of us.
And then it's time for boarding up the cheese ... well, nearly time. First, you have to preslice it - which might seem oddly anachronistic, given that the greatest joy is surely breaking into a virgin brie. But, Hirsh says, it allows us to fan tranches around the board and make pretty patterns. It also stops a whole range of awful table manners, such as using the wrong knife or, worse, poor technique.
Best practice is as follows. Cut particularly hard rinds off, Hirsh says, but leave the rest. Once you've done that, cut slices where "each has all the deliciousness of the whole cheese". Basically, work with the cheese like you're cutting a cake: each slice should have a bit of the outside rind, and some of the squidgiest, or "ripest", bit in the middle. House guests, note: cutting the nose off a brie is very bad form.
I quickly learn that cheeseboarding has a language of its own: foodstuffs are called "elements", crackers are displayed in "rivers", salami form "pools". Hirsh teaches me to lay the largest and hardest elements first, which means making two rivers of crackers that cascade across the board. They form support for the next element to be placed: the hard stuff.
We stack the mimolette so it buttresses the crackers - strong foundations are important for runny cheeses or any small elements prone to roll about, such as grapes or olives. The chutney pots come next, in the middle as a visual centrepiece. Then the sliced Langres.
We leave the lavender cheese whole because - well, because it's just so pretty as it is - then dig space to make two pools of sausage.
Et voilà! A dish to boast about - and post on Instagram, obviously - that took just 10 minutes to make!
Even if you think that all this is a bit silly, you must at least accept that it's the best social media food trend since pantry porn (posting photographs of your pristine, organised larder shelves). It's certainly better than anything foodie that's prefixed with "unicorn" (muffins, gin ...), or those awful "freak shakes", where several different desserts are piled on top of a milkshake.
In comparison, the cheeseboard is still modest and elegant, even if it now has a flirtatious couple of figs on the side. If you're a board purist - well, hard cheese.
The Telegraph, London