Gastronomy is one of the deepest forms of culture. If you’ve grown up in France you know this, to the depth of your Camembert-calcium-enriched bones (I have, and do). In my Year 2 classroom near Paris there was a poster with the most famous cheeses of France on it: heart-shaped Neufchâtel, orange Mimolette; Reblochon, Roquefort, Comté and Cantal. You were considered a cretin if you couldn’t tell your Crottin from your Pélardon, or the age of a Tomme at first bite. The poster which hung alongside that one was of Charles de Gaulle broadcasting during the Resistance.
In Britain, we are less good at celebrating our native foods, and we’ve long felt that our cheeses pale in comparison to those of the continent. Luckily, we have Ned Palmer to disabuse us of this notion. His book is part history, part travelogue and part tasting menu.
Structured around some of the UK’s most famous cheeses, which Palmer takes to be emblematic of chapters of our history, the book records his journeys to meet the people who make them today, sometimes offering recommendations on what to drink with the cheeses. This is done entirely without snobbishness. ‘There’s no point in drinking a delicate chenin blanc while eating a great grunty Cheddar,’ he writes; ‘the poor wine will just get knocked about all over the place.’ He suggests pairing soft cheeses with sparkling wine, as the resulting feel in the mouth is ‘a bit like sherbert dip dabs’. (Palmer himself came to the profession via Neal’s Yard Dairy in Covent Garden, when being a jazz pianist proved insufficiently lucrative.)
British cheese’s story is an epic one, of ‘war, plague, supermarkets and the Milk Marketing Board’, shaped, like most things, by class conflict, Catholics and more. Cheese makes great food for an army, being compact, nutritious, and possessing a good shelf life. Under Roman occupation, the daily ration was an ounce. Elsewhere, in the American civil war, this went up to a whole pound; and in the first world war, every French soldier on the Western Front was given a Camembert (an ingenious marketing ploy which brought the cheese nationwide fame).
There are some occasional moments of fanciful historical scholarship: ‘With legionaries and local labourers working together and swapping their packed lunches, we can assume the locals must have tried Roman-style cheese.’ And the overwhelming preponderance towards cow’s cheese rather than goat’s or sheep’s goes unexplained, which is a shame.
The monasteries marked a high point: with their connections to parent orders on the continent, they benefited from a high volume of ‘standardised product, and the international network facilitated exchange and transport’. Their dissolution began a downturn which wouldn’t be put to rights until the 1970s (and it might explain in part why Catholic countries tend to win on the cheese front by sheer variety).
In later centuries, enclosure devastated our peasant cheese-making tradition, and American imports almost rendered Cheddar extinct in the 1930s. Those who brought it all back from the brink tended to be counter-cultural long hair types — all named here with due gratitude. Others in the ‘pantheon’ of British ‘cheese saviours’ have come from unexpected quarters: when the plasticine duo Wallace and Gromit proclaimed Wensleydale to be their favourite, ‘kids across the land started asking for it in their packed lunches’. In a fitting upset, a Somerset Cheddar has just been given fourth place in the World Cheese Awards, beating the French contingent. The good people of Neal’s Yard Dairy must be dancing.
Palmer’s writing is loquacious; it is as if he has leant across the counter to regale you with tales of when he was a ‘younger monger’. His history is an utter delight, rousing, infectiously impassioned and inspiring of pride.