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Round and ripe: the role of cheese in global history

The wonderful new Oxford Companion covers ever aspect of cheese — in sex, war, the Bible, Shakespeare, diplomacy, superstition and magical thinking

3 December 2016

9:00 AM

3 December 2016

9:00 AM

The Oxford Companion to Cheese Catherine Donnelly (Edited)

OUP,, pp.850, £40

‘Blessed are the cheesemakers.’ The line from Life of Brian is followed by: ‘It’s not meant to be taken literally. It refers to any manufacturer of dairy products.’ In fact, cheese animates the Bible and — building on Job’s searing image of the womb — its coagulation became an emblem of the Immaculate Conception, endorsed by no less than Hildegard of Bingen. This is just one of innumerable thoughts prompted by this Oxford Companion’s elegant, double-columned, well-illustrated pages. Here is a strong, pleasingly ripe case for cheese’s global role in social, political and economic history.

It all makes for many ‘cheese adventures’. That phrase — not here — was Boswell’s 1762 coining, when his infatuation with Louisa, a married actress, left him too poor to eat out:

I went to Holborn, to a cheesemonger’s, and bought a piece of 3lb 10oz, which cost me 14 ½ d. I eat part of it in the shop, with a halfpenny roll. I then carried home my provision, and eat some more cheese with the other roll, and a halfpennyworth of apples by way of relish, and took a drink of water.

It is an illustration of the fluctuating status of cheese over 8,000 years, ever since the Mesopotamians discovered that ‘controlled rotting’ would enable milk to last longer and travel. (The phrase is Paul Kindstedt’s, one of the contributors to the Companion.) Sadly, by the 1920s, three quarters of cheese in England was imported from Canadian and New Zealand factories. But the Companion is veined by admiring references to ‘the monocled Major’ Patrick Rance, author of The Great British Cheese Book and rescuer, in the 1980s, of traditional cheeses threatened with extinction.

Alan Bennett’s recent Keeping On Keeping On has a neat entry about cheese:

The spirit of the small shop still persists in Booth’s, the local supermarket. At the cheese counter I ask for some parmesan, which might be thought a relative newcomer to this out-of-the-way Craven town. But the assistant proudly reels off the names of the several parmesans that they stock, ending up with a flourish: ‘Or you may like to try the Reggiano, the Rolls-Royce of parmesans’.

His diaries’ index should have featured ‘Cheese’ between ‘Chatwin’ and ‘Cheever’. Asked to describe himself, Bennett echoes Auden’s hope ‘to be/ like some valley cheese,/ local but prized elsewhere’. Such are his cheese-on-toast suppers that the Duchess of Devonshire ‘begs to be invited’.


So, on to the Companion’s entry on welsh rarebit, which discusses its contested etymology; the need to toast the bread on both sides before melting the cheese; and Jamie Oliver’s version — ‘Welsh rarebit with attitude’ — which includes egg yolks, crème fraiche and chili jam, a combination perhaps not prized in the Bennett household. ‘Bread pairing’ elaborates on this — one of several entries which include the word ‘tyrophile’, meaning cheese-lover — but does not countenance butter on the chosen bread.

We are told about the origins of the flat bread, plakous — as the base of the first cheesecake. The Ancient Greek author Athenaeus of Naucratis describes ‘streams of the tawny bee, mixed with the clotted river of bleating she-goats’, placed on the ‘flat receptacle of the virgin daughter of Zeus’. In the entry on sexual imagery, Job reappears, and we have the sexual position of ‘the lion on the cheesegrater’, mentioned in Aristophanes’ Lysistrata. But there is no reference to Edmund Wilson’s line from his novel I Thought of Daisy: ‘In pale stockings, her tired and sweaty feet were like two moist little cream cheeses encased in covers of cloth.’

For all this, the Companion is rooted in technical processes, lightly borne by such as Kindstedt (whose Cheese and Culture has a chapter entitled ‘Caesar, Christ and Systematic Cheese Making’); Michael Tunick (author of The Science of Cheese); and Patricia Michelson. Her The Cheese Room opens with her take on fast food: her own cheese on toast needs eight minutes, and is brushed with a fruity white wine — although the Companion makes a general point that beer goes better with cheese. One might add that, regardless of beer or wine, what T.S. Eliot relished with his cheese-on-toast was a game of Scrabble.

Here also are war and peace. The chapter on Ireland contains Queen Maeve of Connaught, felled by tanag (hard cheese), hurled from her nephew’s slingshot. That’s a contrast to the Congress of Vienna, resolved by
Talleyrand’s competition to decide which nation had the finest cheese; Eurovision-style, each voted for its own, but united to award France the accolade for its Brie de Meaux. (Had the Treaty of Versailles taken a similar course and lauded some frightful smoked German cheese, the history of the last century might have been very different.) With the counterculture of the 1960s, those disaffected by the Vietnam war set up the sort of artisan workshops that anticipated Major Rance.

Witheringly, the Companion’s chapter on American cheeses says, ‘See: pasteurised processed cheeses’. But there is a reference to the American Cheese Society, founded in 1983, which accords with the Companion’s theme. A resurgent range of cheeses includes one made from reindeer milk, which ‘produces a distinctive squeak against the teeth’.

That splendid phrase makes one reflect that cheese merits a better showing in contemporary fiction. And indeed the Companion’s section on ‘literature’ (shorter than ‘children’s literature’) needs expanding with, say, Dr Johnson in the Western Isles, John Meade Falkner on a bishop’s lunch and Shakespeare’s salty takes on the subject. Eimear McBride’s recent The Lesser Bohemians merely asserts that ‘no serious actress will ever eat cheese’. But what potential there might be in conjuring a scene featuring Mauritania’s tasty camel cheese (produced in the 1990s, though its import was blocked by EU regulations).

In fact the Companion shows that relatively few of the world’s cheeses reach us. Pace Auden, perhaps cheese — like retsina and ouzo — never tastes the same when it travels, whether it be the caramel coloured Norwegian Brunost or the specialty cheeses from the little-known King Island, Australia.

And so, with no space for a discussion of cheese phobias, superstitions or magical thinking, one must return to Monty Python. The Companion’s entry dwells on the cheese-shop sketch but — blasphemously — overlooks Life of Brian. Once this is corrected, a second edition will ooze with even
more pleasure.


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