Legend has it – or, rather, the lazily and endlessly repeated myths on the internet which now pass for legend have it – that cheese entered the human purview by serendipitous accident, courtesy of an easy-riding Arab in the searing deserts of seven thousand years ago.
This is in the same category of legend that I was fed as an incredulous nipper in the harsh schooling of my childhood – the kind of story which insisted that cooking was discovered when a brute Neanderthal dropped meat into the fire, picked it out, licked his fingers and thought: “Mmmm, that’s tasty.”
In the case of the peripatetic Arab, he is said (though by whom, strangely, is never sourced) to have put the milk ration for his day’s travel into an animal skin pouch, where the rennet and the unavoidable camelid shoogling separated it into curds and whey.
The whey slaked his thirst (a drawback in desert travel) and the curd had a crumbly, feta-like taste, with a pleasing salinity, of the sort which still graces restaurant menu descriptions millennia down the line.
I can imagine the conversation round the oasis campfire that starlit evening as the date palm fronds rustled in the breeze like the not-yet-invented sound of money being counted. “You mean you just shook it?” Yes. “And it tastes ok?” Yes. “And, like, you could package and sell it?” Hell, yes.
And thus was born the underlying rationale for a thousand artisanal cheesemakers, each of whom to this day shoogles his or her product just a little bit differently, sprinkles his or her own bit of fairy dust on it and sends it out into the world with reluctance and regret, but with the innocent hope of acceptance in his or her hearts.
I have grumbled in public before about how it sometimes seems to be becoming all a bit woo-woo in specialist cheese-making these days and how, really, it’s just about preserving milk for safe future consumption.
I could go on to argue that – as with the turbaned chap who unaccountably never touched his cool, fresh milk all the way across the Empty Quarter, or wherever legend proclaims it to be – the fact that it ended up as something palatable was more by accident than design.
I could further protest that alchemy – the ancient quest to turn base metal into gold – seems to be at the root of the astonishing way some cheesemakers take the simple purity of milk and create ambrosia (the Food of the Gods, not the tinned rice pudding).
But all that would simply be my curmudgeonly and grudging character masking the fact that I am actually lost in admiration at the way the current generation of cheesemakers are magicking out of the milking sheds products that are, by a country mile, better than anything that has gone before.
While Cheddar is by far the largest slice of the cheese market in Scotland, where I operate, increasing numbers of small-scale producers are working wonders with blues, washed rinds, soft cheeses and sheep and goat’s milk products.
Many are farmers, or farmers’ wives, and I know just how hard they work, since I also get up at 5am in our dairy on the southern shores of the Dornoch Firth at Tain – though, usually, I have been lying thinking about the day ahead for all of the previous hour.
I also fully understand and sympathise with the avalanche of challenges they face – new ones roll in every day – energy and raw material costs, transport, packaging, negotiating with granite-jawed, steely-eyed, emotionally-impervious supermarket buyers and the perennial problem of finding staff with a passing interest in what they are doing.
But get up the artisanal cheesemakers do, day after day, and set themselves into freezing dawn dairies, with chapped fingers warmed only by determination, to make up cultures, clean their vessels, start the pasteuriser and make the cheese.
Why? Only they know, and I honestly doubt if they could explain it in a way that would make sense to anyone but another cheesemaker. God knows, I question my own motives often enough in the few moments when my wife is not doing it for me.
But thanks to them, instead of being confined to Cheddar and Red Leicester as we used to be, we now have a cornucopia of artisanal masterpieces which match anything that our previous masters, the French, can throw at us.
For that, if nothing else, I take my hat – indeed, my turban – off to them.
Rory Stone is Director of Highland Fine Cheeses.
- A version of this article appeared on Rowcliffe’s website and can be found here: https://rowcliffe.co.uk/highland-fine-cheese
- Rowcliffe is one of the leading importers and distributors of quality cheese and fine food in the UK. You can read more about our relationship with them here: https://www.hf-cheeses.com/waitrose-and-ms-put-highland-fine-cheeses-on-the-shelves-as-it-continues-its-advance-into-english-markets/