Dear Friends and Family,
A few weeks ago, the Valley News asked me to review the first Oxford Companion to Cheese, a masterful reference guide that explores, as I did, the multiple dimensions (both familiar and arcane) in which human beings interact with cheese around the world.
This morning, the paper ran my review. I greatly enjoyed working with features editor Alex Hanson and I am pleased to share the article (and personal photos) with you here.
The Full Read on Cheese
By Linnea Burnham
For the Valley News
The Oxford Companion to Cheese is the first comprehensive encyclopedia that contains most everything you have ever wanted to know about cheese. From Parmesan to Gruyère, Velveeta to Cheez Wiz, Aaruul in Mongolia to moose cheese in Russia, the entries in this tome are both intriguing and informative and readers, from cheese professionals to the occasional nibbler, will find something to like.
Published in November by Oxford University Press, with 855 entries penned by 325 cheese experts from 25 different countries, this book explores the multiple dimensions (both familiar and arcane) in which human beings interact with cheese — at the farm, in the shop, on the plate and under the microscope.
The Companion also accomplishes an unexpected, but tremendous feat: By showcasing different cheeses, cheesemakers, cheese regions and more, it underscores how cheese, a household staple, is tied to human existence, and has been for centuries. In addition, readers may marvel at the versatility of milk, and the countless flavors, textures and aromas that can be coaxed from it. Or consider how cheese connects us to the world and to place. Few products are both rooted in particular landscapes, cultures and traditions and exported globally. It’s a complicated story to tell, and the Companion is a noble first attempt.
Perhaps most important, this authoritative reference guide breathes new life into the world of cheese. The contributing authors, including leading cheesemakers, dairy scientists, historians and journalists, write from a place of passion and collectively examine cheese as a liberal arts student might, from all possible angles.
The Companion is also a testament to Vermont’s prominence in the national and international cheese industry. It was edited by University of Vermont professor Catherine Donnelly, an expert in the microbiology of food. The foreword, written by Mateo Kehler, co-owner of the Cellars at Jasper Hill in Greensboro, Vt., has a grounding presence on the book, bringing together the vast array of topics and making sense of them in a personal way.
Making cheese, Kehler explains, satisfies his need to do meaningful work in a place he loves with people he loves. Vermont dairy farming has been shaped (or “battered” as he puts it) by global markets and cheese may help preserve the state’s lifestyle and landscape. Not only does it add value to milk, keeping cows on the land and bringing young people back, but it can safeguard small farms from outside forces and strengthens our connection to place. Put another way, a piece of cheese represents much more than what the casual consumer might think. It can, as the Companion demonstrates, be profoundly deep.
The Companion is organized alphabetically and thematically, with accompanying images. All entries are cross-referenced, with suggestions for related reading, and there is an extensive index to assist readers in finding whatever topics they are interested in, be it lactose intolerance or cheese storage tips. A reader can stick to an outlined theme, such as “Cheese Families and Classification” or “Producers,” but Donnelly encourages readers to peruse the book, “wandering along natural paths of discovery.”
Approached in this way, the Oxford Companion to Cheese unfolds like a great short-story collection. One might begin reading about FDA dairy regulations, move to something technical, such as how enzymes coagulate milk, and then be captivated by entries titled, “Cheese and Children’s Literature,” “Cheese and Magical Thinking” or “Cheese Tattoos.” The color inserts enliven the text too, illustrating cheese chemistry and microbiology and showcasing cheeses, dairy animals, producers and landscapes from around the world.
While some cheese connoisseurs may object to the pairing of cheese with such eclectic topics as Monty Python (“Blessed are the cheesemakers.”) , Cheeseheads or Cheese and Gender, the book’s diversity and quirkiness are essential to its charm.
Pineapple cheese, for example, was named for its shape, not its ingredients. Made of curds molded into the shape of a pineapple, the cheese symbolized hospitality in its day. Although it was pricey, pineapple cheese (which was patented in Connecticut) proved so popular over the course of the 19th century, it led to similar products throughout New York, Michigan and the Pacific Northwest.
Vermont residents will be particularly pleased to see many of their state’s cheesemakers featured, such as the Cellars at Jasper Hill and Cabot Creamery, who are mentioned for making clothbound Cheddar, a cheese so good it was awarded a gold medal at the World Cheese Awards in 2004 and went on to inspire more traditional-style Cheddar-making across the U.S. New Hampshire residents, regrettably, will find no specific mention of their state’s cheesemakers.
Like many ambitious reference works, the Oxford Companion to Cheese isn’t without shortcomings. The entry for “reindeer,” for example, suggests that they are still commonly milked. When I traveled among the Sami people in Scandinavia last year, while studying cheesemaking around the world, I found that reindeer milking is a dying practice and reindeer cheese has all but disappeared.
Further, “transhumance,” a European tradition of cheesemakers moving with their livestock to mountain pastures during the summer months, is described in the book as a practice found in Switzerland, France, Italy, Spain and Austria. But there’s no reference to Norway, a country that has also practiced transhumance for centuries and continues to do so today, as budeia (women cheesemakers) return with their livestock to setres (summer farms).
Although the book contains an entry on “Festivities and Celebrations,” it makes only a glancing reference to one of the more spirited celebrations of cheese: Gloucester Cheese Rolling. This annual, centuries-old race, with runners chasing after a wheel of cheese down a vertical hillside, is a famous English tradition that draws thousands of spectators and competitors from around the world.
With over 8,000 years of history to cover, more than 1,400 named cheeses to sort through, and our limited knowledge of the world’s most obscure cheesemaking traditions, Donnelly acknowledges the challenges of crafting a book that does justice to all cheese all over the world. Noting that she had to select representative examples for each topic, because each could be a stand alone book, Donnelly added, “At best, this is a starting point, a reference work dedicated to cheese that we hope will be carried forward in future editions.”
While it may be just a start, the Oxford Companion to Cheese nonetheless does a masterful job bringing the world of cheese to life from historical, cultural, scientific and technical perspectives and is a must-have reference book for all cheese lovers, industry professionals and anyone interested in food. Even readers whose only interest in cheese is in eating will find themselves mesmerized if they give this book a chance.