No one seems to be able to agree on who first said “The early bird gets the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese.” Nor on how many cheeses Charles de Gaulle really mentioned or exactly when he said “How can you be expected to govern a country that has 246 kinds of cheese?” There must be over a thousand different French cheeses and even Britain claims 700. Switzerland and Italy each produce 450 varieties. Swiss cheeses are almost all from cow’s milk. The Italians have made Pecorino, which is a ewe cheese, for 2,000 years. Holland exports the most cheese – and keeps enough for everyone at home to eat over 14 kilos a year. Australia produces over 300,000 tonnes a year, about half of them hard Cheddar-type cheeses. Even the lactose intolerant often eat goat or ewe cheese without ill effects.
Only Asia is almost cheese-less. The Han Chinese were said to have an ‘endemic rejection’ to dairy products, although now they love pizza and are known to empty supermarket shelves of powdered milk. The minority Bai and Sani peoples of Southern China have always made cheeses called Rushan and Rubing. The Philippines, Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan and Northern India and Bangladesh also have their own cheeses, rarely tasted by foreigners.
No one knows where cheese was first made, pressing and salting curdled milk to preserve it, but strainers with milk fats molecules dating back to 5,500 BCE have been found in Poland on the banks of the River Vistula and, according to Pliny the Elder, cheese was an everyday food in the Roman Empire. The 16th century Proverbs of John Heywood include “The Moon is made of greene cheese”, green probably meaning young cheese, but it may come from the full moon’s reflection in water. It can also mean to swindle someone.
Cheese is a top-ranking food on the Yale Food Addiction Scale, perhaps due to the casein in it. In France no meal is complete without it. It’s fine to serve one perfect cheese – or two or three contrasting ones – on a simple cheese board made of wood or glass, slate or marble. I like a balance of aged hard cheeses and young ones, semi-hard cheese and blue, a soft Brie or Camembert, a goat and a ewe – and anything else that looks good at the cheesemonger’s. What you don’t finish is always delicious melted on toast or with potatoes, in a cheese sauce or grated into salad. It keeps well, goes with almost everything and jazzes up a simple lunch or supper dish.
Androuët was a wonderful restaurant in Paris which only served cheese, course after course of it, but that closed a few years ago and although no one I know of specializes now there are many and varied ways to serve melted cheese: in Switzerland fondue is eaten with squares of bread and raclette with boiled potatoes, but house-proud hostesses complain they make the dining room curtains smell and prefer eating them in restaurants. The British like Welsh rarebit and macaroni cheese. In France tartiflette has a thin crust, bacon and melted Reblochon. Aligot, mashed potatoes with melted cheese, is served in the French mountains, originally to pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela. We once had scamorza grilled over an open fire in Montefalco near Assisi in Italy.
K. Chesterton said “Poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese.” I wish someone would redress the balance.