Book Review: A Cheesemonger’s History of the British Isles

When you can’t travel anywhere, reading a book which takes you on a journey, both metaphorically and vicariously, is not a bad substitute; and Ned Palmer‘s wedge of the shared history of the islands and nations which makes up the British Isles made for an interestingly reflective companion during the period of Covid-19 lockdown.

Palmer’s work is part-travelogue, part-paean to cheese and part-reference work. Nine of the ten chapters record a different period in the history of these islands, each featuring a ‘signature cheese’ curated to illustrate different aspects of cheese-making thought to be typical for the period covered by the chapter but which, crucially, is very much a modern cheese. This lends a contemporary relevance to ancient history which is an effective way of relating the circular, repeated aspects of the story of our history. Part of the description of each chapter is a visit by Palmer to the farm, accompanied by some hands-on cheese-making alongside those who count among the leading makers of the cheese of that style. The tenth chapter, something of a catch-all series of more or less tasting notes for the author’s favourite cheeses that didn’t make it to signature designation, is a rapid catch-up with ‘post-modern’ cheese-making in which experimentation, innovation and small-scale production, and the tidal wave of choice, contrasts heavily with the lost, grey-brown years of wartime mass production and rationing.

This is a socio-economic history and a consciously non-kings-and-queens trawl through the shared history of these islands. It’s one for cheese-lovers, certainly, as Palmer carries the historical aspects of his work somewhat lightly, as well as with a degree of somewhat whimsical humour. That shouldn’t disguise the depth of research that has gone into the production of this work (there is a reference to the Rare Book Reading Room at the British Library), and there is quality in the observations for example of the impact of the Black Death of 1348-1350 on land prices, wages and the fortunes of the peasantry amidst the decimation of the population, as well as the subsequent reactions of the landed classes and the Church. Nevertheless, there is a certain amount of unthreaded disconnectedness in how the tale is leavened, given that the author is not a trained historian (but a philosopher) and this sometimes means that some of the more astonishing aspects of the tale might almost be missed.

For instance, in dealing with the significance of the arrival of the railway, Palmer notes that the sudden ease of transportation that this brought, as well as the typically poor quality milk in London resulting from shortcuts in cattle feed and agricultural land being snapped up by developers, as well as a bout of disease, soon wiped out milk production in London to the point that there was no cheese-maker left in Derbyshire living within five miles of a railway line. This covers so much of importance, and which has continuing relevance to our contemporary history – the switch from agrarian to service economy (and, perhaps in the future, back again); the extent to which William Cobbett’s ‘Great Wen’ sucks everything in amidst the lack of an effective regional policy; the mistreatment of animals; the stupidity of an economy based on a market which makes it more profitable for farmers to sell milk rather than make cheese; the problems to production diversity of the relentless search for efficiency; and the ravages of an industrial development financed by private interests with little thought to the apparent wider implications of their self-serving investments – yet all this is conveyed in the matter of four paragraphs (pp. 243-244).

The notion of cream being skimmed off the milk to make butter for the rich, while the poor had to make do with Suffolk Bang – a virtually inedible cheese, being ‘rock hard and tasteless’ and made from the skimmed milk left behind, and which had to be warmed before it became edible, is clearly worth more than a sidenote in any history.

There are frequent references to the scale of cheese-making which, before the advent of factories, provides some hint as to the importance of cheese both in the diets of working people and to the broader economy (as well as armies), as well as to regular imports of cheese from Europe – a process which has been going on to supplement, or perhaps supplant, domestic cheese-makers for at least 500 years.

And don’t get me started on the implications of imports of agricultural products from the US, something which I was startled to find has a history of more than 160 years as the UK emerged from the Corn Laws and the Navigation Laws into a burst of misplaced, foolish enthusiasm for free trade. Look for Velveeta (liquid gold) on your shelves, coming soon – a cheese so good it has to have its own – magnificent – social media department.

Palmer certainly knows his cheeses, however – and I don’t doubt that he also knows his beer, too.

For some cheeses, as he acknowledges, beer is actually frequently a much better pair than the more traditional wine – but both cheese and beer share a history (and not just in the proper recipe for Welsh rarebit). Both were originally discovered six or so thousands of years ago by some happy accident – or, perhaps, were both the result of periods of experimentation with food which provide a circular note of interest given what is happening today; both provide some aspects of the reasons why humans stopped being hunter-gatherers and started to settle in particular locations; both feature in the religious history of these islands in which the rituals and predictability of monastic life lend themselves as well to brewing as to cheese-making; and both came to feature in more recent history as the role and preserve of women, with women and girls as dairyhands (until being squeezed out by men as dairies were professionalised (pp. 236-237)) and also as alewives (with, in the latter case, the better women brewers featuring displays of hops in their windows which were, in several respects, the precursors of pubs).

Furthermore, the production of cheese and beer featured, for thousands of years, an unknown, but key, ‘magic’ ingredient whose actual nature was not discovered until the work of Louis Pasteur until as recently as 1857. Pasteurisation itself has caused controversy in cheese-making as in brewing; while the modern diversity of cheese production, with hundreds of farmhouse manufacturers now present in the UK making a huge variety of cheese, can be easily compared with the surely unrivalled period of experimentation with flavour additions in brewing, and the explosion of small-scale craft brewers, which is now going on. Furthermore, both have recovered, hugely, from the nadir and threatened extinction of 1970s mass production, ‘government cheddar’ on the one hand and Watneys Red Barrel on the other, as the result of desperate campaigning activity by a handful of committed activist-organisers aware that the love of their lives was on its uppers.

No such similar book telling the tale of the British Isles through beer appears to be around – at least, none that I can find in the last ten years that have been significant enough to be reviewed by Roger Protz, at any rate – and I can feel more than a twitch of researcher/writer curiosity.

But that’s really rather beside the point here: Ned Palmer has produced a useful reference work which, while his enthusiasm for cheese and people lends itself rather more naturally keenly to more modern times, and the more practical aspects of cheese-making, nevertheless conveys a history of complexity and rich detail of the frequently disregarded socio-economic aspects of history.

Now, where again has my travel ID gone?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s