Book leaves few holes in story of ancient food
Montpelier, VT (AP) — Cheese is far more than something slapped on a sandwich or sprinkled on top of a pizza, according to a new reference book edited by a Vermont professor.
The more than 850 entries in "The Oxford Companion to Cheese," from Oxford University Press, cover ancient and modern cheesemaking traditions, varieties worldwide, and cultural and historical influences from British comedy troupe Monty Python's "The Cheese Shop" sketch to cheese shops, museums and even cheese tattoos.
"I think it's that one encyclopedia we've all been waiting for," said Rob Kaufelt, president and owner of Murray's Cheese, a vendor in New York.
Editor Catherine Donnelly, a University of Vermont nutrition and food science professor and former co-director of the Vermont Institute of Artisan Cheese, acknowledged that while the intention was to produce the most comprehensive reference book on cheese, the editors had to be selective. As a result, the book isn't an index of cheesemakers, cheese shops and cheese varieties, of which there are 1,400 worldwide. (The book covers 244.)
"At best this is a starting point, a reference work dedicated to cheese that we hope will be carried forward in future editions," Donnelly wrote.
Take Robiola di Roccaverano, for example. It's a small, round Italian cheese produced from goat's milk, or at least half from goat's milk, the rest being ewe's or cow's milk or a combination. There's also lor, a traditional Iranian cheese; and laguiole, "a cylindrical uncooked, pressed cheese weighing as much as 110 pounds" that dates to the 12th century.
There are also entries on cows, sheep and goats, and even yak and reindeer, whose milk is used to make cheese; cheese cuisine from fondue to poutine; the science involved in cheesemaking; historical references like the mention of cheese in Homer's "Odyssey"; and cultural influences such as cheese-related tattoos.
(The most popular tattoo to signify a cheesemonger's or aficionado's commitment to cheese, according to the book, is an image of a wedge of hard cheese, sometimes with blue veins or Swiss cheese style "eyes" in it.)
"'The Oxford Companion to Cheese' is a great addition to an ever-growing body of cheese knowledge. Its scope is wide, and yet it achieves this breadth while still providing the level of detail and background information needed to advance readers' understanding and knowledge," said Nora Weiser, executive director of the American Cheese Society.
The time is ripe for such a book, Donnelly said.
"The students coming to us today are so obsessed with food," she said. "They just want to know everything there is to know about food and all the minute details, history and where it's from and how it's produced."
There's also a global concern about regulations possibly harming the way cheeses have been produced for centuries, such as the use of raw milk and tools such as wooden boards for aging, Donnelly said.
That's one of the reasons many contributors to the book — there were a total of 325 from 35 different countries — were so passionate about writing about cheese and its history, she said.
They "saw this as an opportunity to really represent these traditional cheeses that had been produced for centuries and that they've studied for years and keep all of that alive," she said.
"The Oxford Companion to Cheese," which joins the Oxford companions to wine, food, beer, as well as jazz and Shakespeare, sells for $65 from Oxford University Press.