The Oxford Companion to Cheese

Image of The Oxford Companion to Cheese (Oxford Companions)
Release Date: 
November 30, 2016
Oxford University Press
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The word companion derives from the Latin cum panis, “with bread” which makes this Oxford Companion—probably unintentionally—a literal and figurative companion to cheese since bread, along with fruit, is oft recognized as cheese’s traditional accompaniment.

A first thought when perusing this big “companion to cheese” was that the title perhaps should have been the Oxford Companion to Cheese-Making. This book isn’t merely an alphabetic listing of cheeses, where one reads up on that obscure cheese once found in Corsica, but rather it is laden with entries on the science of cheese-making, the marketing of cheese, and personalities in the history of cheese-making. This makes it a great companion but also raises some editorial questions, namely, does this make sense?

On the scientific side of things, one can’t help but enjoy stumbling on fascinating entries such as “conjugated linoleic acid,” a naturally occurring fatty acid produced in the rumen of dairy animals; or “hyphae,” fungal structures; or “peptidases,” enzymes. But then to go on to what I consider overkill in a self-proclaimed companion, which I take to be something less than an encyclopedia, namely, for example, in the last-mentioned case, mentioning enzymes “that hydrolyze a peptide bond in short peptide substrates producing shorter peptides and/or amino acids as products” seems to be more than we need to know. On the other hand, there are plenty of readers who will love that stuff.

If one is not a cheese nerd much of this companion will be annoying.  A cheese lover will head right for the cheeses themselves, and then there’s all that stuff for the nerds. To its credit, there’s something for everyone (i.e. cheese lovers) here. Cheese making entries such as “brining” provides more information than a cursory search might want, but it’s fascinating enough to keep reading. You’ll learn something. And under the principal of “the more you know, the more you’ll enjoy,” this works.

However, that raises some questions about editorial choices. Does cheese tastings really need an entry of its own? What about World War II, which is described as “truly a global war”? Does the Greek author Homer need his own entry in a cheese book simply because he mentions cheese in the Iliad and Odyssey? The first-century Roman agricultural writer Columella certainly does merit his own entry by virtue of his recipe for cheese making in his Res Rustica

On the other hand, there are some glaring lacunae such as no entry for the 16th century Italian author Cristofaro di Messisbugo who wrote in his book Libro novo on cheeses, specifying that “hard, fatty cheese: tomino, pecorino, saresco, marzolino, provature and ravogliuoli cheese” are indispensable for the pantry.

But the most egregious omission is one for the author of the first authoritative Italian work on dairy products, the Summa lacticiniorum by Pantaleone da Confienza, a professor at the University of Turin, written in the latter part of the 15th century, and which describes some of the best cheeses, mentioning the cheeses of the Val d’Aosta as being very tasty—perhaps a description of fontina. The Summa lacticiniorum was a veritable encyclopedia devoted to environmental, hygienic, dietetic, economic, and gastronomic aspects concerning the production of milk, but, and above all cheeses, whose extensive varieties are listed for the first time. Its omission is troublesome.

An entry for “Courtyard Dairy,” a cheese shop in the north of England opened in 2012, hardly seems like a necessary entry. There are many more examples of superfluous 21st century cheese shop entries.  If it was the “world’s oldest” cheese shop, that’s one thing, but a store that might be out of business in a decade hardly merits an entry.

Now comes the good stuff: the entries for the cheeses themselves. Reading about Lighvan Paniri, an Iranian cheese is fascinating with details right down to the unique method of how the dairyman pulls the udder of the cow. One may know Gruyère quite well, but the entry here will give you a deeper knowledge.

It will be fun to stumble on cheeses you may have never heard of such as “Formaggella del Luinese” a semihard Italian whole goat’s milk cheese produced in the province of Varese in Lombardy. Most of the French, Spanish, Italian, and Swiss cheeses get their own entries while lesser-known cheese producing countries such as Mexico or the Arab countries are clumped together under the country entry. What must be one of the most obscure cheeses ever does get its own entry. Wagashi is a cow’s milk cheese produced in the Sahel region of Africa, made by Fulani herders, and its story is riveting.

The cheese entries are not comprehensive; one can find hundreds of cheeses not mentioned, but that is not a fault if we understand the difference between an encyclopedia and a companion. Overall The Oxford Companion to Cheese is a useful resource and a delightful book for anyone’s library—not just cheese lovers'.