Cheese is one of my Favourite Things. You can keep chocolate: cheese, in its manifold textures and flavours, is what I really love. You can imagine my excitement when the The Oxford Companion to Cheese came out.
When I planned this post, the opening photo was of a glass of port, home-made crispbread crackers and four impressive cheeses, the pale green mould of the Tor standing out in particular. But I ate the cheese, and most of the crackers, before photographing them.
A few years ago I reviewed the Oxford Companion to Food (3rd edition). It is a great resource and I read many articles from that in parallel with other reading when I did the Harvard Science & Cooking course. The Oxford Companion to Cheese expands hugely on a topic which is a small section fo the Companion to Food.
The first thing that I noticed was that the Companion to Cheese has colour plates. I got very excited about that. A number of good-quality black and white photographs are dotted throughout to illustrate specific entries.
It’s worth approaching the Companion from the front. The content is organized alphabetically and the Topical Outline of Entries section at the beginning of the guide divides entries into core topics. Cheesemaking Process and Technology is the root to much knowledge; I went straight for the list of topics under Cheeses. Would my favourite cheeses be listed? No, they would not. There are, I was callously reminded, a huge number of cheeses in the world. None of my favourite Scottish or Swedish varieties make the list. Cheddar, of course, is there, as is both Stilton and Stichelton, as well as Mimolette, an amazing French hard cheese.
I turned to the index to search for crowdie and Västerbotten. Sweden’s favourite cheese still didn’t feature, but I found crowdie. It might not have it’s own entry, but it’s mentioned in the entry on fresh cheeses.
As well as looking for specific cheeses or terms, the Companion is fun to browse. Pick a page – any page – and read something there. You’re likely to learn something.
Browsing the entries
The last entry in the topic Culture made me laugh with pleasure and immediately seek it out: Wallace and Grommit. The entries on culture, politics and philosophy are all very interesting. Cheese, as a way of storing precious resources, has had a role to play in human development and history. It’s a fascinating topic for discussion with friends over a cheese board.
One thing I learned browsing the Companion is that I have a strong prejudice against American cheese and cheese culture. That prejudice and my European bias means I think the Companion has too American a focus. Don’t take my word for it: I might be unfair in that assessment.
I know there’s good cheese in America but, in my travels there, I’ve never met it. This is, after all, the country that served me a cheese board of Manchego, ricotta and mozzarella. (What’s my issue with that selection? The lack of textures, moulds and flavour-enhancing rinds.) I was intrigued to read the entry on Velveeta. I didn’t think it could be described as cheese and nor, it turns out, does the US Food and Drug Administration. The product of long experimentation to find a way of re-using left-over cheese, it’s a laudable product that has had a role in motivating an American cheese counterculture.
Which brought me to reading the entry on American goat ladies. Which made me look up goats. After which, I read about dairy allergy. And then…
It’s compelling, learning something new. It makes you want to find out more.
Dr. Catherine Donnelly, the Companion’s editor, is Professor of Nutrition and Food Science at the University of Vermont. She’s got thorough cheese credentials and has collected together a great number of contributors. Darina Allen wrote the entry on County Cork, for example. The wide range of contributors makes for a variety of styles in the entries, from more personal in tone and content to strictly scientific.
The Oxford Companion to Cheese is an enjoyable encyclopedia of all things cheese. It’s fun and educational, a great resource for lovers of cheese.
Dr. Catherine Donnely (editor)
Oxford University Press, USA, 2016.