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

Howard Jacobson
Saturday 01 October 2011 00:00

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?

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