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Oxford does cheese, from A to Z

Oxford University Press has released the first major reference book on cheese: 849 pages of history, technique and culture.

At 849 pages, the Oxford Companion still only scratches the washed-rind surface of over 1,000 years of artisinal craftsmanship and cultural obsession, writes Ian Brown

Let me pose a question: 849 pages, about cheese? Admittedly, cheese is a unique gustatory experience, unlike any other: the milk of a living mammal (a cow, a sheep, a goat, a water buffalo, even a moose) is adulterated and curdled, and possibly stirred and heated and brined and brushed and aged and further transmogrified, and then, while still a living thing, is consumed by other living things, that is, us.

In other words, there is a distinct lacto-cannibalistic element to eating cheese, which then returns to the ecosystem (though not always easily, given the constipation and even obstipation challenges cheese can pose) to help grow the forage eaten by cows and sheep and goats and moose to make more cheese. This sense of eternal intestinal return is only enhanced by the barnyard pong of many cheeses. Somehow, eating cheese is satisfying (or disgusting) because, in addition to its other pleasures, it always feels a little like eating your own brain.

If 849 pages only begins to scratch the washed-rind surface of cheese as a subject, the good news is that you don’t have to read them consecutively. Like Total Hockey: The Official Encyclopedia of the National Hockey League, or Chic Scott’s Summits & Icefields: Alpine Ski Tours in the Canadian Rockies, The Oxford Companion to Cheese is a tome (versus tomme, a generic term used to describe a flat cheese that is usually bigger and rounder than it is thick) you can stack bedside or chair-adjacent and open at random, in any passing moment of distraction or boredom, and always learn something you didn’t know. That kind of gift appeals to some of us.

There are three main reasons for the book’s handiness: the passion of its editor, Dr. Catherine Donnelly; the genius of its organization (which is simple and alphabetic, backed up by a comprehensive index); and its subject, which is, after all, “one of humankind’s greatest discoveries,” primordial cheese. If you are going to do something as bourgeois and self-satisfied as become an expert on what Monty Python’s John Cleese called “cheesy comestibles,” you may as well be forthright about it. These days, cheese is all the rage. Affinage, anyone?

The Oxford Companion to Cheese.

(Part of the appeal of all Oxford Companions is precisely this no-nonsense habit of treating knowledge, always daunting and in short supply, as a simple, collectible, indexible commodity. The existing Companions encompass a hyperactive range of subject matter, from English Literature (the first Companion ever published, in 1932) to American Law, Australian Military History, the Bible, the Body, the Mind, Wine (highly recommended), Theatre (ditto), Film, Fairy Tales, Gardens, Global Change, Jazz, Spanish Literature, Spirits and Cocktails, World Sport and Games and the Photograph.)

Donnelly, the cheese pal’s editor, is a professor of nutrition and food science at the University of Vermont and co-director of the Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese, the first (and possibly the only) “comprehensive academic research centre devoted to artisan cheese.” Hence the Companion’s predilection for artisanal cheese making (including the resurgent craft cheese makers of Ontario and Quebec), though it dutifully includes entries about everything from J. L. Kraft (who came out of Canada, but prospered in Chicago) to Velveeta (one of his signature products) as well. For her own part, Donnelly is a world expert on listeriosis, the author of Cheese and Microbes, and, judging from the photo on the book jacket, a non-depressive cheese eater who leans to pearls and peppy pink pants.

“In approaching this book,” she writes in her remarkably enthusiastic introduction, “it was necessary to explore the multitude of ways in which we interact with cheese.” Think about that sentence. There are more than 1,400 named cheese varieties in the world today – this being a healthy stretch in the multiple milennia-long history of fermented curd – evidence, to Donnelly’s mind, of “a bona fide cheese culture” even in North America, where our long-standing germophobia delayed its emergence. In 1985, the American Cheese Society (nothing to do with Donald Trump) judged 89 cheeses made by 30 cheese makers. In 2015, 267 producers entered 1,799 cheeses into competition. Cheese is da cheese, fellow curdlings.

Cheese makers have always been fanatics. Neolithic and, later, Sumerian and Mesopotamian cheese makers in the Fertile Crescent started curdling milk as far back as 11,000 years ago. Cheese (like butter) was an ancient form of capital: several European banking houses started out banking cheese, according to the Companion. Cheese also features in both Homer’s Odyssey and the Bible.

Donnelly divides 855 entries from 325 well-informed contributors in 35 countries (a high-water mark even by the obsessive-compulsive standards of Oxford Companions) into 15 cross-referenced areas of interest, ranging from animal species and cheese classifications (the Companion mentions 244, many of which you will never hear of again) to cheese shops and the mysteries of the flavour wheel. The book also offers 180 photographs, from which it is possible to conclude that many cheeses look alike.

The advantage of consuming the Companion rather than the cheeses it discusses is that the words are less arteriosclerotic. Stories of individual cheeses take on a life of their own. You can begin, for example, with the Companion as your guide, at Vincenzo Campi’s The Ricotta Eaters, circa 1585, with its depiction of lusty peasants about to spoon into a gobbet of freshly-turned ricotta – which is Arabic, not Italian, in origin – and gradually make your way, via boldfaced sub-references such as “CURDLING, CULTURAL THEORIES OF,” to the artwork of Christina Agapakis, a synthetic biologist, and Sissel Tolaas, a “smell artist,” who made cheese from cultures started with microbes swabbed from the human body (specifically from hands, feet and armpits).

That is less unnatural than you might imagine. Curdling, the process that kicks off the cheese-making process, has been associated with sex at least since Aristotle speculated that milk was coagulated by rennet (a blend of enzymes made from the fourth stomach cavity of ruminant animals, though there are vegan coagulants as well) in the same way (he theorized) that semen “fixes” a uterus into pregnancy. Making cheese was traditionally female work – dairywomen in England regularly flipped 63-kilogram wheels of cheddar, until wealthy farmers acquired economic status, which meant their wives could no longer do any heavy lifting. With the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, cheese making became more “scientific,” and therefore the province of men, thus denying women their “butter money,” the small coin that was often their only route to independence.

Along the way, the Companion provides extensive and – I am afraid of what this says about me – unbelievably compelling histories of cheeses. Umami-abundant Parmigiano Reggiano was the first cheese to be exported, and the first cheese to be matched with pasta, and the cheese Samuel Pepys took the trouble to save his stash of, during the Great Fire of London. (Molière, at one point seeking longevity, ate nothing but a daily ration of Parmesan.) The painstaking step-by-step procedure that transforms the raw milk of (only) a Lacaune ewe into a salty, nose-opening slice of Roquefort Carles that has been penicillinized and aged in the natural Combalou caves underneath Roquefort-sur-Soulzon, is not only weirdly gripping: it also explains why the cheese sells for $75 a kilo. Pliny the Elder thought it tasted like medicine. Pliny the Elder was obviously capable of being a dolt (he also thought donkey milk removed facial wrinkles). And I haven’t even started on Limburger, the kryptonite of Mighty Mouse.

This is not to say that the Companion is all history, or ideas – not at all. The book includes entries on the cheese knife, cheese mites and cheese-maker’s lung. And of course there is cheese grating. People have been shaving their cheese since at least 3,000 BC: by the 7th century BC, aristocratic Italians and Greeks (who liked to sprinkle grated goat cheese in wine) were often buried with their cheese graters, an implement they evidently felt might ease their passage to the hereafter. Better safe than sorry.

Do you want a cheese tattoo? The Parmigiano Reggiano stamp works well. Do you care that “to get in the cheese,” in Hindi, means to introduce a topic into conversation, whereas in Australia it can mean having sex with an old woman? Do you think about whey, the watery byproduct produced when milk is coagulated into curds? A lot of people do, especially now that the surging popularity of Greek-style yogurt has created a superabundance of acid whey, which is in turn being used to invent ever new muscle-, bone– and body-building supplements.

Eventually, poring over the Companion – because by now a reader will have decided that cheese as a subject is worth 849 pages, and then some – you find your way to moose cheese. Hand-milking a moose is as hard as it sounds: the animal yields only 4.5 litres of milk a day, versus 36 litres a day from the average dairy cow, in part because moose are extremely nervous and tend to clamp shut when they hear a loud and unexpected noise. This shouldn’t be a surprise. Moose milk is luxuriously high in butterfat, protein and mineral content, making it hard to turn into cheese, which explains why there is only one known moose cheese, produced in Sweden by a herd of three moose, albeit in a rind style, a blue style and a moose feta. It sells for as much as $400 a pound. Newfoundland, take note.

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