Top Cheese Tips From Simon Johnson

By Ellie Schneider
7th Jan 2014

Simon Johnson likes his cheese. After beginning his career in food as an apprentice chef, working in both Sydney and Auckland, Simon opened Australia's first specialist in-store fromagerie.

Two decades later and his bustling Pyrmont store now houses a dedicated cheese room, piled high with cheeses from all pockets of the globe, including an incredible range of English cheddars

We caught up with Simon to find out what makes a great piece of cheese, and to garner his top tips for curating the perfect cheese board.

TUL: How did you first fall under the spell of fine cheese?
Simon Johnson: When I first arrived in Australia from New Zealand in the mid 80s I was introduced to Will Studd. He was importing some incredible cheeses and in those days you were able to bring raw milk cheese into Australia. It was definitely an "oh my god" moment tasting some of those cheeses and started my love affair with cheese.  

TUL: What, in your opinion, is so wonderful about a beautiful piece of cheese?
Simon: What's great about cheese is often the experience of how or what you are enjoying the cheese with—a beautiful bottle of wine, after a fantastic meal, sharing it with friends. It is also a food people love, it sparks discussion and debate. You talk about producers, types of cheeses, flavour, texture, and the complexity of cheese.

TUL: How have you seen the culture surrounding eating fine cheese change and evolve in Australia?
Simon: It has changed and evolved significantly. Thirty to 40 years ago we considered tin Camembert or coon slices a good cheese. Our tastes are now much more sophisticated. We are enjoying some of the finest cheeses from around the world, while also embracing traditional farmhouse cheeses from local producers.

TUL: People are often intimidated by the sheer choice available— where do you start if you want to sample a few different types of cheese?
Simon: Keep it simple—and that's with all food, not just cheese. One of the most important factors to consider when choosing cheese is texture. Always try to have a hard, a semi soft and then say a beautiful cheddar. Also do it on scale, you are better to have three generous slices than six small slices. All our stores have wonderful, knowledgeable staff who will take you through the cheese-choosing process. Don't be afraid to ask questions.

TUL: What types of cheese are good for the Australian climate, particularly in the summer?
Simon: Quite honestly I'd go for the cheeses that are easy to digest, such as cheeses made with goat or sheep's milk. I'd also recommend a hard cheese. A Caprinelle is a good choice.

TUL: For someone entertaining a few friends, what are the must-have cheeses for their board?
Simon: D'alpage Beaufort is a special treat and a real showstopper. It is rare and extremely seasonal. It's only made in spring when the animals are feeding on the spring flowers, high up in the French alps. It's similar to a Gruyère—a beautiful sweet nuttiness with a lovely complexity.

Le Conquerant Camembert imported by Will Studd (sold at our store) is the closest thing we get in Australia to a raw milk cheese. It's a winner.

La Luna by Holy Goat is a beautiful goat's cheese and a lovely addition to a cheese board.

TUL: What are the best condiments to accompany the various types of cheeses?
Simon: A cheese board is NOT a fruit salad plate. Keep it simple and stick to one fruit. Right now I'm serving my cheese board with figs, they are in season and are beautiful. Figs have a very high PH level, which helps with digestion. The Simon Johnson prune and walnut log is great. I love charcoal crackers and some sourdough bread too. Oh and of course, a beautiful bottle of wine.

TUL: Do you have any helpful tips for creating a beautiful cheese board in terms of presentation?
Simon: Generosity is the key and to keep it simple with two or three cheeses max, 750g-1kg of each cheese rather than six small slices of cheese. I like to serve it on a beautiful wooden board with some nice cheese knives.

TUL: Are there any lesser-known cheeses you think should be given more attention?
Simon: Yes, we have some fantastic boutique producers in Australia. As they are small there is limited supply, so talk to the staff and they will guide you in the right direction. One week it might be there and then the next week it's likely to be gone. Nick Haddow is producing wonderful cheese down on Bruny Island in Tasmania. Keep an eye out for his cheeses.

TUL: Lastly, in preparing a cheese platter, are there any tips that should go into the preparation?
Simon: It's really important that cheese should always be brought up to room temperature, around 18-22°C . Nine months of the year I would generally bring cheese out when I start to prepare the lunch, but on a really hot day I'd probably bring the cheese out when I serve entrée. That means it sits for around an hour.  

Image credit: Simon Johnson

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