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Say Cheese

Photo: David R. Frazier / Photo Researchers / Universal Images Group.  

A strong candidate from left field for the best book I’ve read for a while comes in the form of ‘A Cheesemonger’s History of the British Isles’ by Ned Palmer.  On reflection, I am not sure why I am surprised about this, because it combines two things I enjoy, i.e. history and cheese.  I would no doubt enjoy a book about history and wine, but the British wine industry, for all its recent progress, is probably not yet ready for such a long-term study to be written. 

To be clear from the outset, my knowledge of cheese is mostly limited to the Monty Python cheese shop sketch, which I used to be able to recite pretty much word for word.  To this day, I cannot eat Camembert without enquiring about how runny it is, and it has always struck me that my favourite line from the sketch – ‘an act of purest optimism to have posed the question in the first place’ – might make a good title for the autobiography I will never write. 

When life returns to something approaching normality, I can thoroughly recommend an evening of cheese tasting, courtesy of the good folk at The Teddington Cheese.  They have two small shops, one near Teddington station and one in Richmond, which you might have thought would be called ‘The Richmond Cheese’, but it is not, and it is at the latter that the monthly ‘Cheese Masterclass’ takes place – or at least it used to. 

Under the expert tuition of managing director Tony Chuck, the masterclass is a splendid evening of cheese and wine, and more wine and more cheese.  The first time I went, I was more focused on the wine than the cheese, which meant I did not recall much of what we had been taught and I was not particularly productive at work the next day – though I had enjoyed a thoroughly excellent evening.  The second time, I was better prepared all round.  I had something to eat beforehand, which meant I was neither ravenously hungry nor drinking on an empty stomach, and which allowed me to focus more carefully on what Tony was telling us and to enjoy myself more as a result. 

We tasted a mix of soft and hard cheeses, from the UK, Ireland and Europe, made from pretty much any creature that is prepared to give up its milk without too much of a fight, including buffalos.  I continue to struggle with the idea that such a creature can be milked, but there are clearly people brave enough to give it a go, so good luck to them.   

Not only do you get to taste cheeses that you might never think of buying, you also get a fascinating insight into how this entrepreneurial operation works.  I was most struck when Tony explained that the company does a third of its annual business in the week before Christmas, with cheese still being seen by many as a treat for a special occasion rather than a staple – and when we do eat it as a staple, we probably buy it from a supermarket and suffer a decidedly inferior experience as a result. 

Ned Palmer’s book is a delightful summary of the history of cheesemaking in the UK and Ireland, linked closely to some of the key events of the past two thousand years.  His love of all things cheesy started when he got a job at the Neal’s Yard Dairy in Covent Garden.  I confess I had always associated Neal’s Yard with the cosmetics firm that is part of the operation, using it for years as a guaranteed win for birthday gifts and other presents.  Even when friends sent us a box of cheeses from the dairy at Christmas, I was more concerned that we had too much cheese in the house – having already placed my order at The Teddington Cheese – than I was about the source of the gift.  

It turns out that both companies often stock the same cheese from the same farms, so clearly there are agreed areas of expertise that need to be sampled, and I shall certainly try to be more adventurous in my selections from now on.  Perhaps other people reach these conclusions earlier in life than I did, but there are some experiences where you simply have to pay a premium price and enjoy yourself.  Goethe may have said that life is too short to drink bad wine, but he could equally have added that it is also too short to eat rubbery, tasteless cheese. 

Palmer charts the development of the cheesemaking industry from Neolithic times to the present day.  For those of us who remember the time when a cube of bland cheddar and lump of pineapple was the height of entertaining sophistication, it is worth hanging on to the idea that artisan cheeses nearly did not survive the triumph of the supermarkets over the independent retailers, and it was only thanks to the efforts of a handful of crusading partisans that it did.  

Apparently, Elizabeth I was very fond of cheese, declaring that ‘a meal of bread, cheese and beer constitutes the perfect food’, and a famous entry from the diary of Samuel Pepys records how he was concerned that his house would be destroyed by the Great Fire of London in 1666, so he rushed home to secure his most favoured possessions – some bottles of expensive wine and a parmesan cheese – by burying them in his garden.  In the end, his house was not consumed by the flames and the party to celebrate no doubt featured a considerable consumption of both cheese and wine.  When Britain and France went to war (again) in 1689, a new development was apparently the vigour with which French privateers engaged in cheese piracy, thereby putting a stop to the coastal cheese trade until the war ended in 1713.  Cheese piracy – hand over your cheddarrrrr! 

With the advent of the railway in the mid-nineteenth century came new technology for transporting milk, primarily to towns and cities.  The old milk cans, which allowed the milk to get churned up on the journey, were sarcastically named ‘churns’, and the name stuck when they were replaced with better ones.  Special train wagons with heat-reflecting white-painted roofs and louvred walls kept the milk cool on its journey.  Light, well-sprung vehicles replaced the juddering old carts taking the milk from farm gate to railhead, which were called ‘floats’. 

There are lots of other gems to share, but I need to stop now, both to help you from getting too bored and to have some cheese while I spend time thinking up more jokes about milking buffaloes and French cheese pirates, of which there must surely be many.  But I’ll leave the last word to Ned Palmer for now, who described one of the campaigners for proper cheese featured in his book as a ‘militant lactivist’ – genius on all counts! 

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