Reviewed by Alex Hazle
⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
I confess that, as a lover both of British popular histories and fine cheese, A Cheesemonger’s History of the British Isles (Profile Books, £9.99) was something of a no-brainer.
As with all the best books in this genre, the author, Ned Palmer, easily weaves a lyrical tale to back up historical facts. And despite it being about inanimate comestibles (and he expertly analyses, details and tastes for us a great deal of them) there are of course lots of likeable characters (Palmer included) and affecting human stories, occasionally sad but often funny.
After a brief introduction that explains his cheesemongering credentials, Palmer takes us right back 6,000 years to Neolithic times and the earliest cheesemaking. Thereafter each chapter belongs to a different cheese with its own story, both personal to Palmer and fitting into the continuous chronology of cheese in the UK and Ireland (as this history is about all of the British Isles and not just Great Britain, he is at pains to stress). There are many ups and downs, from the Romans introducing other cheeses and practices to Britain from elsewhere, right up to the 20th century and the Milk Marketing Board and the Common Agricultural Policy, and attempts to wash away the British cheesemaking tradition with gallons of subsidised milk. Palmer is occasionally grumpy about these attacks on what he sees as beloved traditions. (Needless meddling and politics, and their real-world effects, are another common theme in histories like this, and also so relevant to the present time.) And it’s not just mass-produced Cheddar in the firing line of his dislikes either – he only tacitly accepts that Wensleydale with fruit in it has any place on a proper cheeseboard! But only occasionally does Palmer veer this far towards cheese elitism.
Perhaps the nicest touch for us Bathonians is that the book effectively begins and ends just a few miles from Bath, in Timsbury. Chapter One is dedicated to a goat’s cheese called Sleightlett, made by Mary Holbrook on Sleight Farm, the first place Palmer is briefly seconded to from his first job at Neal’s Yard to learn about cheesemaking. The book ends with Mary Holbrook’s funeral, but this is treated more as a celebration of her life and of a cheesemaking renaissance, and so the book ends upliftingly.
One hopes Palmer has a follow-up in the works – perhaps he will one day decide to to sell up, leave London and start his own cheesemaking dynasty? I for one would want to read about it.