It’s fair to say I own quite a few books about cheese. When people visit my house for the first time, especially if they haven’t known me very long, they often at some point emerge from the downstairs toilet, look at me in a strange way and mutter something along the lines of ‘gosh, there are quite a few…erm…cheese books in there, aren’t there?’ I like to smile enigmatically at them and not give any explanation. If you doubt my cheese book collection but are still awaiting your invitation to my water closet, here’s a sneak preview of the top shelf:
So, when I was asked if I’d like to review The Oxford Companion to Cheese, I jumped at the chance but also perhaps wondered if it would have anything new to say about the world of cheese.
This is undoubtedly a weighty tome, in every sense of the word. Coming in at a massive 1,084 pages and with 855 entries from 325 contributors worldwide, it’s not a book to slip into your hand luggage and read by the pool. But, equally, it’s not a dry and dusty reference book. For anyone with an interest in food, its production and provenance, this is a glorious book to lose yourself in for an hour or so. Like any good encyclopaedia, you look up cheddar and, before you know it, you’re reading about saganaki or the historical adulteration of cheese using toxic red lead.
I am a sucker for anything quirky and so delighted to read about the weird and wonderful cheeses of the world: the cheeses of Sudan, seasoned with black cumin, braided and stored in brine; Brin d’amour (‘breath of love’), a Corsican sheeps’ milk cheese wrapped in herbs such as rosemary, juniper berries and fennel seeds; the ‘cheese fans’ of China, coagulated with quinces and hung up to dry as sheets, then deep-fried and flavoured with sugar; the Pag cheeses of Croatia, aged in stone or pressed olive skins. Before long, I was contemplating starting a whole new blog as an excuse to track down and try a Greek cheese aged in animal skins, a Middle Eastern cheese that’s so salty it needs soaking in warm water to render it edible, or French curd cheeses cured in the smoky rafters.
Practically every aspect of cheesemaking and cheese-eating is covered here. You can find out about livestock renowned for cheesemaking, whether it’s Lacaune sheep or Gloucester cows. Cheese pioneers such as Pierre Androuët, Patrick Rance and Randolph Hodgson all feature, as do famous shops and markets, from Formaggio Kitchen in the US, to The Courtyard Dairy in the north of the UK. Science buffs can lose themselves in the workings of Geotrichum candidum, mycelia and phenotypic variability, whilst foodies can dribble over raclette, poutine, cheese balls and Welsh rabbit. It’s text-dense, as you would expect but does feature black and white images throughout, as well as a couple of colour inserts:
Less predictable are some of the other paths that the book explores. Sexual imagery relating to cheese gets its own entry (no pun intended), exploring the fetishisation of milkmaids, breast-shaped cheeses and historical analogies between rennet and semen. Cheese addiction and cheese aversion are both explored, as is the history of magic tricks featuring cheese (new to me too!) Cheese in children’s literature features, as do – of course – tattoos featuring cheese. And it’s thanks to this book that I now know that a tyrosemiophile is a person who collects the round, colourful labels from wooden Camembert boxes.
For someone obsessed with our native cheese, I have to say that it felt a bit light on British entries, compared to the US and our European neighbours. Reading it, you wouldn’t perhaps guess at the renaissance in British cheesemaking that’s happened in the last three decades. Most of the territorials are well-represented but only a handful of contemporary British cheeses and cheesemakers have made it in. And no Cooper’s Hill Cheese Roll! But, in its defence, the introduction is careful to point out that it does not try to present an exhaustive list of cheeses and that there are likely to be omissions ‘both unintentional and intentional.’ No doubt there will also be a German somewhere lamenting the lack of an entry for Milbenkäse or a Swede aghast at the omission of Västerbotten but that shouldn’t detract from the ultimate achievement of this book’s compilation.
It seems extraordinary to contemplate that a white, watery substance that comes from an animal can lead to a book of this size and scope but that, after all, is the story of cheesemaking. In just a matter of weeks, milk can be transformed into something hard and yellow, orange and stinky, blue and crumbly, or snow-white and runny. And this book just about covers it all. For anyone interested in the history, production, provenance or cultural significance of cheese, this is a must-have to add to the bookshelf (albeit a strong, well-constructed bookshelf to take the weight of it).
The Oxford Companion to Cheese will be published by Oxford University Press on 1 December 2016, priced at £40.00. More information can be found here.
Disclosure: I was sent a copy of this book for review purposes. All opinions expressed are my own.