I've always had a fondness for the nativity, maybe because it's theatrical, and over the years I've made visits to wax Nativity museums and sought out the live encampments that appear around town churches in late December. However, I've never owned a crèche. Figurines creep me out. And I hate the idea of stuffing the basement full of more holiday ticky-tack.
That's why, two years ago, my family and I started a tradition of the edible cheese crèche. It might sound sacrilegious, but it's not intended that way. On Christmas Eve, we assemble it with care, having selected sheep's milk cheeses to represent the lambs and strong cheddars to stand in for the wise men. We carve a crude dwelling from a round loaf of bread, and sing carols as we tuck evergreen around the cheese board and tape paper angels to toothpicks for added drama.
Then we turn off all the lights in the house and sit around burning candles, telling stories. And feasting. Each year the cheese crèche looks a little different, but we always try to buy artisanal cheeses that support independent farmers, people who work with their hands. To me, that's the holy part of the holidays -- supporting artistry and appreciating all the sweat, milk and time that goes into cheesemaking.
Should you decide to dazzle your friends with a cheese crèche, here are some suggestions for a striking and thematically appropriate cheese board:
Stable: 1 large round loaf of crusty bread
Mary: a mild blue, like Saint Agur
Joseph: Pere Joseph, a strong Belgian cheese
Manger: a salmon terrine or paté
Sheep: 3-4 rounds of chevre or pyramids of Valencay
Cow: Banon, a soft cheese wrapped in chestnut leaves
Three wise men: assorted pointy wedges (i.e. gouda, cheddar, Parmesan).
Tenaya Darlington blogs about cheese at Madame Fromage.