Howard Jacobson: A life without cheese is no life at all

Unless the Cheddar takes the skin off the roof of your mouth it has no business, in my view, calling itself Cheddar


Say "Cheese".

Lucky you if you can. Lucky you if you can look at the thing, never mind say the word. Lucky you if you made it to Cardiff last week for the British Cheese Festival, where Helen Finnegan from Kilree romped away with the title of Supreme Champion Cheese Maker for her Knockdrinna Artisanal Farmhouse Cheese, whose tastiness she ascribed, with becoming modesty, to the wetness of the grass in her part of the world.

Lucky you if you dare imagine the cow champing on all that wet grass and having thoughts that will eventually become cheese – though Helen Finnegan's winner turns out to be a goat's cheese not a cow's, which makes my missing out on it that little bit more bearable as I'm a cow cheese man at heart.

"At heart" – I choose my words carefully. So much of a cow cheese man am I that I am forsworn it for health reasons. Nothing my doctor has said. Indeed, when I told him I was off cheese he proclaimed me a fool. Life without cheese, he said, closing his eyes, wasn't life. But life without being alive, I replied, keeping mine open, wasn't life either, and I wouldn't be alive unless I gave up cheese. This was my own prognosis, based partly upon the example of my father, who metaphorically if not actually died of cheese, and on how my own heart feels after a bout of cheese bingeing. If it is little short of miraculous that a single blade of wet grass can pass through the digestive system of a cow and come out as a firm round of farmhouse Cheddar – my cheese of choice, as it was my father's – then it is no less miraculous that the farmhouse Cheddar I gratinate, stuff into a crusty loaf, grill on a toasted bagel, sprinkle on to spaghetti, nibble the corners of like a mouse, can reconstitute itself as it passes through my digestive system into a solid block that lays siege to my heart.

That I am talking about a strong Cheddar goes, I hope, without saying. Unless the Cheddar takes the skin off the roof of your mouth it has no business, in my view, calling itself Cheddar. A mild Cheddar is an oxymoron. If you want a mild Cheddar then just buy yourself a Cheshire or a Caerphilly. Perfectly nice cheeses but not cheese cheese, not cheese with bite and tang and the pungent nuttiness of watercress, not cheese that releases, when it crumbles, a forbidden aroma at once peppery and uric, as of the perspiration of the Nereids, those fabulous creatures who live among the reeds and swim in stagnant vegetation. Unlike the Sirens, the Nereids came to the rescue of sailors, singing to them of toasted cheese on bagels. And if you were never seen again by mortal woman – so what?

I don't pretend to have a refined taste when it comes to the cheese I like. I have, in my time, visited most fromageries in the country in pursuit of the perfect Cheddar, and marvelled over Keen's who have been making Cheddar in Wincanton since the 19th century, and Montgomerie whose cows roam on Camelot; I have tasted King Island Black Label in Australia, Agropur Grand Cheddar aged five years in Canada, and sampled every Grana Padano and Parmigiano-Reggiano going (Grana Padano and Parmigiano-Reggiano being the nearest the Italians can get to Cheddar); but in the end, reader, I am able to find what I am looking for almost as reliably in your common or garden supermarket Cheddars, whether they call themselves Cathedral City, or Pilgrims Choice, or Seriously Strong Cheddar, so long as they are hyper-hyper-vintage, extra-extra-extra mature, and have a number denoting strength in excess of 12 on the wrapping.

I'm not saying I would serve these on a cheeseboard after dinner, but for melting on a crumpet in the middle of the afternoon as my father taught me to do, as an alternative to spreading salad cream on slices of buttered white bread, or making a matzoh sandwich of fried fish balls, red horseradish and anchovies, they cannot be faulted.

We were not, as you might have guessed, a cheeseboard family. Had my father ordered cheese at a Michelin-starred restaurant, been offered a selection of those soft, French rat-droppings (to which, frankly, the ear wax of a Cheshire Nereid would be preferable), and then been asked to pay an extra £20 over the prix fixe, he would have called the manager. Knowing his own appetite and not wanting to cause embarrassment halfway through the meal, it was my father's invariable practice to order, sight unseen, a double portion – double steak, double chips, double apple pie, double lager with double lime. But to have doubled or even quadrupled a Michelin-starred cheeseboard would still have left him with no cheese visible to the naked eye. Besides which, where on the board, was that king of cheeses, the farmhouse Cheddar?

Funny thing about language, the way a word that dismays in one context will exhilarate in another. Normally, the word "farm" chills me with its bleak, muddy functionality. Would I ever go on a farmhouse holiday? Do I choose to stay at a farmhouse bed and breakfast – where the egg comes with hay and chicken shit still sticking to the shell - when I know that if I keep driving I will find a Malmaison with soft pillows and a bottle of red wine waiting for me in the next town? When our geography teacher told us to dress for a trip to a farm the following day, I feigned a bilious attack and stayed home, unless I misremember and the word "farm" brought on a real bilious attack. Yet apply it to cheese, and "farmhouse" doesn't denote bleakness but its very opposite – licence, indulgence, debauchery even. Farmhouse Cheddar is something I must stay away from in the way that some men know they must stay away from loose women with vermilion lips.

But what if I am wrong? What if extra-strong Cheddar is in fact my salvation, reconciling me to wet grass and cold farmhouses and thus reconnecting me to nature. I am of an age when getting on with nature matters. Of the many ways to die, what if death by cheese on toast turns out to be the most natural?

React Now

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

C# Developer (HTML5, JavaScript, ASP.NET, Mathematics, Entity)

£30000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

C# Integration Developer (.NET, Tibco EMS, SQL 2008/2012, XML)

£60000 - £80000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Integration...

Biztalk - outstanding opportunity

£75000 - £85000 per annum + ex bens: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: Biztalk Te...

Trade Desk Specialist (FIX, Linux, Windows, Network Security)

£60000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Trade Desk Specialist (FIX, Linux, Windows...

Day In a Page

Read Next

i Editor's Letter: The final instalment of our WW1 series

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff

Simon Usborne: The more you watch pro cycling, the more you understand its social complexity

Simon Usborne
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice