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Food and Drink

Something so deliciously corrupt about them

Joseph Conrad's characters (I have been rereading him lately) do not seem to eat. Too busy with typhoons, laying down bombs or being Garibaldi in unspecified parts of Central America, think I. But in fact the explanation is far simpler and lies in the fact that many of them live out their complicated lives where there is no cheese, as for instance the South China Sea and the Straits of Malacca.

There is something gastronomically missing in a cheeseless society. The idea that you might be sitting by a mountain lake in south-central Mexico, eating excellent grilled huachinango and not have something to chase away one taste and finish the wine with is somehow dispiriting. There are parts of the tropical river system of Venezuela and northern Brazil where you will be fortunate to find anything to eat at all, but when hunger sets in, that sort of intermediate hunger which is not gung- ho for a real meal but can use some dampening down, I have a genuine nostalgia for cheese.

Nor are the triste tropics the only places where this want is felt. Poland has a lot of pigs; pigs don't get milked (piglets get the entire supply); so Poles don't have cheese. Certainly one of the reasons I hated my gastronomic trip to China two years ago is that except in the remoter regions of the north and east, cheese is not part of their culture.

Then there are those countries - say Spain and Portugal and Greece - that have a cheese or two but don't really have cheeses; and others (Scandinavia and the Netherlands come to mind) that eat cheese in quantity, but produce cheeses they have done their best to ensure taste of nothing at all.

I speak here as something of a renegade for, in common with my whole family, I am - apart from butter and cheese - a strictly non-dairy man. I have had a life-long fear of developing an ulcer from being forced to drink milk. I like ice- cream little; I will not touch yoghurts; I tolerate cream only with fruit. I can think of not one of my children who has not spurned breakfast cereals because of the milk required to make them soggy. Yet we have always loved cheese. Why?

I cannot say that cheese played an important part in my early diet, apart from parmesan on pasta or in risottos and minestra. Yet from very early I can remember at least three striking cheese flavours. First the little silverfoil-wrapped, round Bel Paese cheeses that were universal before the war, filling, creamy and delicious; then that weird and wonderful, all-but-vanished hard, Swiss, mountain-herb green cheese called sapsago, whose principal flavour comes from melilot, a sweet form of clover; and finally real, deep-golden gruyre of which, my mother assures me, I would insist on eating only the parts around the holes.

What did these cheeses have in common? I think in childhood they provided a contrast to the rest of my diet, a salt, chalky, savoury contrast, and they were vaguely exotic. I never saw the parmesan that was added to our Italian dishes, but these three cheeses were visible and tangible.

It was not until I grew up that I began to appreciate cheese as the embodiment of a superior corruption: that is, as something that mysteriously grew better as it aged and ripened. This must be a reflection of my tendency to like food on the borderline of perishability. I am known for not stopping short even when the gorgonzola is about to walk across the table. I like my meat well-hung, my game high, my cheeses ripe. In short, whatever is just short of disintegration.

Thus it comes about that I have much less feeling for those stable cheeses, from cheddar to gouda, that seldom really ripen. Camembert and brie and reblochon and roquefort will all convert themselves into runny extremes, and it is then that they show themselves most fully individual. For though all cheeses start with milk (cow, ewe or goat) some of them stay in their original, bland state; others have corruption in them from the start, whether or natural or induced by additives that bring about the ripening.

The fact that eating cheese does wonders for the digestion and goes wonderfully with the last few glasses left in the bottle may have something to do with it; but ultimately I suspect ripeness is indeed all, and that in the same way I like my bananas near-soft and certainly darkening, I have a natural affinity for the decaying part of our lives, for autumn, the rot of vegetation, the conversion of life into death.