Palmer is both a cheesemonger and a cheese historian — encyclopedic, forensic and geekily obsessed with the stuff. He writes in a jolly patter: warm, wry and deliciously digressive. He threads a chronology of cheese from the unnamed Neolithic goat-herd in the Zagros Mountains (in what is now the high borderlands between Turkey, Iran and Iraq) who first noticed an odd coagulation of sour milk and realised it was delicious, through Roman cheese production that fed armies, monks of the Middle Ages, the agricultural development of enclosures and animal husbandry and the Victorian technologies of mechanisation and railway transport.
Structured around some of the UK’s most famous cheeses, which Palmer takes to be emblematic of chapters of our history, the book records his journeys to meet the people who make them today, sometimes offering recommendations on what to drink with the cheeses. This is done entirely without snobbishness. ‘There’s no point in drinking a delicate chenin blanc while eating a great grunty Cheddar,’ he writes; ‘the poor wine will just get knocked about all over the place.’ He suggests pairing soft cheeses with sparkling wine, as the resulting feel in the mouth is ‘a bit like sherbert dip dabs’. (Palmer himself came to the profession via Neal’s Yard Dairy in Covent Garden, when being a jazz pianist proved insufficiently lucrative.)... Palmer’s writing is loquacious; it is as if he has leant across the counter to regale you with tales of when he was a ‘younger monger’. His history is an utter delight, rousing, infectiously impassioned and inspiring of pride.
This book – which would make a fine Christmas present, along with a wedge of Sparkenhoe red leicester – is full of such cheese epiphanies. A critic might argue that in paying so much attention to artisans, Palmer is glossing over the fact that the average cheese-eater in Britain is still eating dull block cheddars. But I was cheered by his passion. In this world of grief and division, it is heartwarming to be reminded that not everything is getting worse. These days, they are even making good cheeses in Suffolk: the mushroomy baron bigod, made near Bungay. “Unlike the old Suffolk bang,” Palmer observes, “this is not a cheese you could sharpen knives on.”
By the end of this unusual history book, you’re more thoroughly briefed on rind-washed and curd-washed cheeses than you will ever need to be. But Palmer writes with pace and passion, and his encounters with modern-day practitioners fizz with infectious delight.
I much enjoyed what I've read of this culinary journey to uncover the histories of old favourites like Cheddar and Wensleydale and fresh innovations like the Irish Cashel Blue or the rambunctious Renegade Monk. Along the way we learn the craft and culture of cheesemaking from the eccentric, engaging characters who have revived and reinvented farmhouse and artisan traditions