I bought this delightful little yellow book on an impulse, drawn to it by the simple illustration of cheese on its cover, and its erudite title, The Philosophy of Cheese.
After all, cheese is a serious business (as well as a personal addiction).
In about 100 pages, McGuigan leads us through the history of cheese. He starts with a basic introduction of what cheese is and how it’s made, and a general history of the earliest known cheese, dating to 5000 BC.
The next ten chapters focus on the stories of ten classic cheeses: Feta, Pecorino, Munster, Parmigianino Reggiano, Brie, Roquefort and Gouda, Cheshire, Cheddar and Rogue River Blue (the youngest one in the list be millenia, and the only one I was not previously familiar with). There are stories of farmers and monks, of empires and global trade, of cheeses traded and carried across the world and of small local traditions. Many of the historical texts McGuinan cites as sources give detailed insights into how these cheeses were made, and place each one firmly into the context of its era of birth.
It’s dry, the material, and mostly academic in nature, yet fascinating to anyone interested in both history and cheese—as I am. It takes me back to the classic history texts I read at university (BA French & History), all carefully footnoted with references, and rigourously labelled illustrations.
In the Rogue River Blue chapter, McGuinan brings us up to date in the world of cheese, walking us through cheese-making over the last few decades. Unlike the rest of Europe—certainly France, Italy, Germany and other countries—by the start of the 20th century, the UK and America had shrunken cheese-making traditions; much about traditional cheese-making and those who made it were gone, their artisan cheeses replaced with mass-production products. When cheese making experienced a renaissance in the last few decades of the millennium, our British and American cheese-makers were freeto follow their taste buds and passions, less stifled by long-established traditions in their respective regions.
After the individual cheese chapters comes a brief chapter that echoes the title of the book: The Philosophy of the Cheeseboard, in which McGuinan shares the traditional tenets of a classic cheeseboard before encouraging us to throw them aside—I approve! Next come a few words on how to serve and store cheese, some suggestions for condiments beyond the usual chutney, and ideas for drink pairings.
McGuinan is a food journalist and cheese writer, co-founder of the London Cheese Project, and runs cheese-focused training courses at the School of Fine Food. His deep affection for and knowledge of cheese is evident on every page. It’s not a long read, this small sunny book, but it’s a lovely one—quite different to the usual food books I buy.
And at this time of year, it’s the perfect choice for a stocking filler, or as a small but meaningful gift for a lover of history and cheese.
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The Philosophy of Cheese by Patrick McGuinan is published by The British Library.