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6 july 2011

Cheese has a curious double reputation. It is among the most prized, discussed, and discriminated of foods; as with wine and olive oil, it's possible to be a "cheese snob," a dynamic few other foods share. Yet there's something cheesy about cheese, too. It's a ridiculous thing to love: smelly and moldy even in some of its greatest versions, always faintly seeming like something that's gone wrong with milk (as indeed it is). To be foolishly thrifty is to be cheese-paring; to be unreasonable about routine is to complain that someone's moved your cheese. When someone's trying to get you to mug for the camera, they tell you to say cheese. It's hard to take cheese seriousness seriously.

To Andrew Dalby's credit, his "global history" of cheese for the Reaktion Books Edible series tempers high seriousness with a slice of cheese humor. Cheese has provoked so many exaggerations and absurdities that it's hard not to laugh at it even when analyzing and praising the stuff. Artisanal food that decks the tables of royalty and merchant princes, cheese necessarily has a rustic origin and always seems to betray its hayseed origins. It comes to table wrapped in leaves, packed in wood, washed in brine, crusty, oozing, in extreme cases crawling with mites; cheese inhabited by other fauna is both repellent and haute, and sometimes both at once.

Most of the world's peoples are lactose-intolerant, so a "global history" of cheese necessarily excludes them: China, Japan, Southeast Asia, the subcontinent, and tropical Africa have no cheese traditions to speak of. (Though Dalby does point to a fresh-cheese tradition in Yunnan; China always provides exceptions to its own rules.) Cheese is historically a thing of northern Africa, the Middle East, and Europe.

In an excavation on the small Greek island of Therasia, at a settlement buried by the Santorini eruption at or near 1627 BC, a grey substance was found which nineteenth-century archaeologists believed to be cheese. (19)
Serious cheese data always seems to edge into cheese parody. One imagines a Monty-Pythonesque archaeologist in pith helmet pronouncing "a saganaki of the Fourth Dynasty!" (Not idly is one of the Pythons' most famous routines set in a cheese shop.) But however potentially campy this discovery, it points to Greece as a crossroads of ancient cheese traditions. Greek cheeses of the present day can be hard or soft, old or new, salty or sweet, bland or pungent; they are made with cow's, sheep's, and goat's milks, exhibiting the range of Old World cheese styles.

I don't tolerate lactose well myself, but as Dalby points out, harder and older cheeses contain proportionally less lactose, to the point where venerable Parmesans contain none at all. The human taste for cheese must have evolved in tandem with lactose tolerance among the peoples of the West; nobody was going to raise cattle and embark on the years-long process of manufacturing Parmesan just in the hopes that they could digest the final product. But the result is a food that brings dairy to the dairy-challenged. And in surprising ways: the unique pasta filata method for making fresh mozzarella results in a lactose-free young cheese with a texture unique in the culinary world ("neither hard nor soft," 80). Bufala with tomatoes and basil, I salute thee.

Unlike some other entries in the Edible series (Hot Dog, for instance), Cheese doesn't spend much time on the mass-produced American approach to its subject. The United States is the world's largest producer of cheese, and one would imagine that far more "cheese food" is produced here than anywhere else; we invented stuff that looks and melts like cheese but comes no closer in any other respect to the real thing. It is probably as well that Dalby doesn't waste any pages on Velveeta.

Dalby, Andrew. Cheese: A global history. London: Reaktion, 2009.