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.