"What took you so long?" she asked.
"Oh," I said, sounding casual, "I stopped off at the cheese shop for a read."
"Ah," she said.
Actually, there are two cheesemongers in Glasgow these days - Iain Mellis's place and the second, just called The Cheese Shop, which opened a few months ago. They offer the exceptional farmhouse cheeses of small local manufacture. It is a heartening sign of the gourmet times reviving in Britain, or at least in Scotland. And a sign also of determined reaction against the long-shelf-life, factory-production, hastily matured supermarket philosophy that results in cheeses that bear a closer resemblance to soap or soapstone than to this delectable foodstuff.
I am of the persuasion that the globe would be an immeasurably duller place without farmhouse cheeses.
What is perhaps strange about the British renaissance is that it is not happening in France. Indeed, rumor has it that the French are increasingly gung-ho for the hyper-market culture. And yet I cannot believe - can I? - that the marvelous French open-air market stalls selling a dazzling multiplicity of cheeses fresh each morning are really on the way out. Even in the thick of Paris there are irresistible outlets, and returning home with a large bag of cheeses is one of the essential reasons for going to the French capital in the first place.
Cheese (to quote one American word book's description) is "a solid food prepared from the pressed curd of milk, often seasoned and aged." This makes no attempt to convey the slightest hint of what authentic cheese is all about.
I go to the two cheesemongers to stock up, of course. But I have to confess that I get almost as much pleasure from reading their labels. These are not factual prose at all. Nothing, it seems, but excessive raptures of linguistic inventiveness can come close to expressing the cheesemongers' subtle distinctions of aroma, taste, texture, and imagination regarding the ambience, the atmospherics, of cheeses. As Mellis remarks in his brochure: "Every enthusiast will testify that no two cheeses are ever the same," and he describes the real farmhouse cheesemaker as "part of an intuitive tradition" - an art, clearly.
Of Coolea, the Mellis label says: "The rich dark flesh of this cheese is deliciously, almost shockingly, fruity."
And here is how he introduces Milleens: "Its deep farmyard aroma and rich vegetal tastes make it a challenging reward for any palate" - something of a dare. I have risen to the bait, and can vouch that not only is his description accurate, but that Milleens is - well, it is a memorable cheese.
Memorability is part of the cheese experience, what the labels call "aftertaste" or "finish." A cheese from the Isle of Mull un-Scottishly called "L'Esplendida" is (says the tag) "a pale cheese with a high fruity taste leading to a spicy citrus finish."
Down the road, in The Cheese Shop, we find that Bonchester "has a fresh, 'grassy,' rounded flavour" and that not only has Mrs. Appleby's cheddar "remained unchanged since 1947" (the recipe, that is), but that Bonnet "lingers in the mouth in a very satisfactory way."
Cheese language is still more of an art than a science. There is an element of the TV commercial in some of the labels. A boundary has been breached between what might be called a trade description and hyperbolic salesmanship.
IN the beautifully printed slender booklet of 1939 illustrated by Barnett Freedman (see illustration), the comparatively few cheeses described are all classic British ones, and the language is tempered accordingly. It is still, however, good reading. Cheshire, for example, "has a loose, granular, and silky texture" while the flavor of cheddar "should be clean and mellow, without rasp, and it will not tire the palate even though it provides the whole meal."
What cheese should not be is put into words by one of the doyens of the British Farmhouse Cheese movement, Patrick Rance. In the preface to "The Great British Cheese Book" (he has written a French one, too), Major Rance states:
"The hard cheeses of England and her firm-crusted blues are the finest in the world.... Even our most generous original gift to humanity, Cheddar, is really known to comparatively few people. Most meet it in name alone. What they eat is some hard-pressed rectangular substitute, often foreign, usually emasculated in character and chilled into irredeemable immaturity."
Perhaps it is the difficulty of finding a vocabulary sufficiently discriminatory to encompass cheese nuances that has led to rather a paucity of books about them. One solution, practiced in a new volume called "French Cheeses," subtitled "the visual guide to more than 350 cheeses from every region of France" and published by Dorling Kindersley, is, as its name suggests, a kind of guidebook along the lines of books on birds and wildflowers. (If you see a Camembert or a Raclette perched on a branch or growing by the verge, with this book of astonishingly clear photographs you cannot fail to recognize it.)
The descriptions alongside the pictures in this seriously helpful field guide are informative and organized. But, I don't know, they seem to lack that je ne sais quoi - know what I mean?