Magazine article The Spectator

'The Oxford Companion to Cheese', by Catherine Donnelly (Edited) - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'The Oxford Companion to Cheese', by Catherine Donnelly (Edited) - Review

Article excerpt

'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 OxfordCompanion' 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 . …

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