Sunday, November 25, 2007


What a Food We Have in Cheeses

Hilaire Belloc, excerpts from On Cheese, in his book of essays First and Last:

This happy Christendom of ours (which is just now suffering from an indigestion and needs a doctor—but having also a complication of insomnia cannot recollect his name) has been multifarious incredibly—but in nothing more than in cheese!

One cheese differs from another, and the difference is in sweeps, and in landscapes, and in provinces, and in countrysides, and in climates, and in principalities, and in realms, and in the nature of things. Cheese does most gloriously reflect the multitudinous effect of earthly things, which could not be multitudinous did they not proceed from one mind.

Consider the cheese of Rocquefort: how hard it is in its little box. Consider the cheese of Camembert, which is hard also, and also lives in a little box, but must not be eaten until it is soft and yellow. Consider the cheese of Stilton, which is not made there, and of Cheddar, which is. Then there is your Parmesan, which idiots buy rancid in bottles, but which the wise grate daily for their use: you think it is hard from its birth? You are mistaken. It is the world that hardens the Parmesan. In its youth the Parmesan is very soft and easy, and is voraciously devoured.

Then there is your cheese of Wensleydale, which is made in Wensleydale, and your little Swiss cheese, which is soft and creamy and eaten with sugar, and there is your Cheshire cheese and your little Cornish cheese, whose name escapes me, and your huge round cheese out of the Midlands, as big as a fort whose name I never heard. There is your toasted or Welsh cheese, and your cheese of Pont-l'evêque, and your white cheese of Brie, which is a chalky sort of cheese. And there is your cheese of Neufchatel, and there is your Gorgonzola cheese, which is mottled all over like some marbles, or like that Mediterranean soap which is made of wood-ash and of olive oil. There is your Gloucester cheese called the Double Gloucester, and I have read in a book of Dunlop cheese, which is made in Ayrshire: they could tell you more about it in Kilmarnock. Then Suffolk makes a cheese, but does not give it any name; and talking of that reminds me how going to Le Quesnoy to pass the people there the time of day, and to see what was left of that famous but forgotten fortress, a young man there showed me a cheese, which he told me also had no name, but which was native to the town, and in the valley of Ste. Engrace, where is that great wood which shuts off all the world, they make their cheese of ewe's milk and sell it in Tardets, which is their only livelihood. They make a cheese in Port-Salut which is a very subtle cheese, and there is a cheese of Limburg, and I know not how many others, or rather I know them, but you have had enough: for a little cheese goes a long way. No man is a glutton on cheese.

What other cheese has great holes in it like Gruyere, or what other is as round as a cannon-ball like that cheese called Dutch? which reminds me:—

Talking of Dutch cheese. Do you not notice how the intimate mind of Europe is reflected in cheese? For in the centre of Europe, and where Europe is most active, I mean in Britain and in Gaul and in Northern Italy, and in the valley of the Rhine—nay, to some extent in Spain (in her Pyrenean valleys at least)—there flourishes a vast burgeoning of cheese, infinite in variety, one in goodness. But as Europe fades away under the African wound which Spain suffered or the Eastern barbarism of the Elbe, what happens to cheese? It becomes very flat and similar. You can quote six cheeses perhaps which the public power of Christendom has founded outside the limits of its ancient Empire—but not more than six. I will quote you 253 between the Ebro and the Grampians, between Brindisi and the Irish Channel.

I do not write vainly. It is a profound thing.

Nicolaes Gillis (1580-1632)

Donald Hall, O Cheese:

In the pantry the dear dense cheeses, Cheddars and harsh
Lancashires; Gorgonzola with its magnanimous manner;
the clipped speech of Roquefort; and a head of Stilton
that speaks in a sensuous riddling tongue like Druids.

O cheeses of gravity, cheeses of wistfulness, cheeses
that weep continually because they know they will die.
O cheeses of victory, cheeses wise in defeat, cheeses
fat as a cushion, lolling in bed until noon.

Liederkranz ebullient, jumping like a small dog, noisy;
Pont l'Eveque intellectual, and quite well informed; Emmentaler
decent and loyal, a little deaf in the right ear;
and Brie the revealing experience, instantaneous and profound.

O cheeses that dance in the moonlight, cheeses
that mingle with sausages, cheeses of Stonehenge.
O cheeses that are shy, that linger in the doorway,
eyes looking down, cheeses spectacular as fireworks.

Reblochon openly sexual; Caerphilly like pine trees, small
at the timberline; Port du Salut in love; Caprice des Dieux
eloquent, tactful, like a thousand-year-old hostess;
and Dolcelatte, always generous to a fault.

O village of cheeses, I make you this poem of cheeses,
O family of cheeses, living together in pantries,
O cheeses that keep to your own nature, like a lucky couple,
this solitude, this energy, these bodies slowly dying.

Clara Peeters (1594-1659)

Charles Gray wrote Crambo on Cheese after attending a wedding dinner without cheese. Note how every line ends either with the word "cheese" or with a word rhyming with "cheese."

I've dined—but still I'm ill at ease—
For why? my stomach lacks the cheese.
I try its cravings to appease,
But all won't do—I sigh for cheese.
A glass of port, sir?' If you please—
But what is port without the cheese!
The wine of life is on the lees,'
Unless a dinner ends with cheese!
I take a pinch, and loudly sneeze.
Sly madam Echo answers 'Cheese!'
I love a song—am fond of glees—
A song I'll write in praise of cheese.
If fair Miss Sally touch the keys,
To me they vibrate, che, che, cheese!
I'll never sue on bended knees,
To lady fair that spurns at cheese.
The world, in vain, may try to tease
The man that is content with cheese.—
May you, my friend, live at your ease
And never want your bread and cheese:
To Mrs H. a lengthened lease
Of life's good things—including cheese.
Last night she braved the stormy breeze,
Got wet—the Doctor lost the cheese!
I'd rather far that his degrees—
I mean his muckle M's and D's,
Had lost their mark, than we the cheese.
May hungry ruin on him seize,
That stole, and then devoured the cheese;
Long may he feel what drunkard drees,
A burning drouth—sans drink, sans cheese!
Sweeter than honey to wild bees,
Or to the fists of lawyers, fees,
Is port, or porter, after cheese!
At lunch, I give my heart a heeze,
With ale, brown stout, and Cheshire cheese.
Though eld my hair should silvereeze,
There's youth, and truth, in Stilton cheese.
If cold, in winter, make you wheeze,
Then clear your windpipe out with cheese.
For indigestion—sad disease!
What is so good as mouldy cheese?
Ill fares the man that never prees
A rabbit, made of Glos'ter cheese.
Had I, on earth, but four Tarees,
With them I'd buy a pound of cheese;
Or mouths like the twin Siamese,
I'd feed them both with toasted cheese.
Till death life's genial current freeze
My rhymes shall run in praise of cheese.—
Your friendly hand I soon shall squeeze;
Meantime, provide the house with cheese:
I'll drink, while you repeat the threes
'Hip, hip—hurra! the cheese, the cheese!'
While rivers run to join the seas;
While leaves in spring shall clothe the trees,
And daisies star the verdant leas,
Shall mankind munch their bread and cheese!
Rhymes yet remain, as frieze, and pease,
And C's and G's, and E's and T's;
And twenty more as good as these,
When next I chant, or chime, on cheese.
So having made you my congees,
I drop my crambo-clink on cheese!

Floris van Dijck (1575—1651)

I borrowed the title of this blog post from new words written to the old hymn tune "What a Friend We Have in Jesus." The lyrics are in Marcia and Jon Pankake, Joe's Got a Head Like a Ping-Pong Ball: A Prairie Home Companion Song Book (New York: Penguin Books, 1990), p. 12:

What a food we have in cheeses
Mozzarella, cheddar, Swiss
Bleu and Limburger's sweet breezes
Lingering like a lover's kiss
Humble milk's apotheosis
Muenster, Provolone, Brie
Damn cholesterol's thrombosis
Cheese is Gouda stuff by me!

Heed the U.S. Dairy Council
Keep the Gruyère on the shelf
Just a tiny ounce'll
Give you Vitamin B-12
Gather, pilgrims, at the deli
Buying Edam and Havarti
Wedges moist and cold and smelly
Bring home lots and have a party!

Floris van Schooten (1590-1655)

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