Many blue cheeses are at their creamy peak right now, ripe for picking over pudding, writes Will Studd.
Call me an old Scrooge, but my advice, if you're planning to make an inspired choice of cheese to celebrate the traditional holiday festivities, is keep your selection small and simple. When it comes to artisan cheese, less is often more, even at Christmas.
Your favourite cheesemonger is the obvious place to start. Encouraging a customer to taste the cheese and make an informed choice from an often confusing display of different shapes, sizes and textures is an important part of a cheesemonger's role. Resist temptation and avoid getting carried away. If the cheese you had set your heart on isn't up to scratch, don't compromise - substitute another or simply go without. A selection of just three or four cheeses is more than enough, while just one great-tasting cheese in optimum condition provides a wonderful opportunity to appreciate a cheese on its merits.
My pick this year will be blue cheese. There's plenty of choice: a variety of textures and flavours, ranging from mild to very strong, with many at their seasonal best at this time of year. Choosing by type has the added advantage of making it relatively simple to match a wine.
Stilton is the obvious first choice. Its reputation as the king of English cheese, and its traditional association with Christmas, make it a must-have on the list. The best Stilton is produced at the beginning of autumn from late-lactation milk and takes two to three months to mature - almost half of all sales are made in December. Not all Stiltons are the same, however, so it's important to be fussy about what you buy. The finest examples are creamy in texture, with a mellow, savoury flavour, and the blue mould should not be sharp or overpowering.
Some large producers freeze Stilton or preserve it under a vacuum so they have supply for supermarkets late in the year. This tastes quite different to cheese freshly cut from a crusty wheel. The pretty ceramic pots of Stilton that appear as great-looking gifts at this time of year, meanwhile, are generally made with cheese offcuts. Keep the pot but throw away the cheese is always my advice to friends.
Roquefort is the only soft blue cheese made from unpasteurised milk currently allowed to be sold in Australia, so it's also a must on my shopping list. This legendary blue is one of the oldest and most popular of all French cheeses. The spores of Penicillium roqueforti mould, found in the famous labyrinth of caves beneath the Cambalou plateau, are now used in the production of just about every blue cheese in the world. Roquefort is made for just six months a year, from the end of December, and matured in the region for at least 90 days, often just below freezing point.
The finest examples are those made at the end of the milking season in May and June, when ewes graze on fresh pasture, and it's these that are released just in time for Christmas. Soft, moist and fatty, the cheese's crumbly texture and lingering strong, salty blue flavours are not for the uninitiated, but when served with thinly sliced dark rye bread, cultured Beurre de Baratte and Sauternes, you simply can't go wrong.
Cheesemongers around the world look forward to the annual release of Rogue River Blue Special Reserve. This unique, award-winning American blue cheese is made in Oregon from whole cow's milk only in autumn. After gentle maceration in local pear brandy, it's wrapped in shiraz vine leaves, ceremonially picked on the equinox, before being matured for 15 months and released in limited quantities. The strong but not overpowering blue flavour has an extraordinary fruity aftertaste, which makes a wonderful substitute for Christmas pudding. This is a cheese with a wow-factor that will astonish your guests.
Finally, a Christmas blue selection wouldn't be complete without at least one local blue. My pick is the award-winning Tarwin Blue, made from the rich spring milk of a small mixed herd at Berrys Creek, in the prime dairy countryside of South Gippsland, Victoria. This signature farmhouse blue cheese has soft, creamy well-balanced savoury flavours that are guaranteed to please a festive crowd. After one taste, it's hard to stop wanting more, which is what any great cheese is all about. Enjoy.