In this blog post, Bronwen Percival explains the evolution of the thinking behind her new book Reinventing The Wheel. The book is available for purchase in our shop.
From the moment that I began working at Neal’s Yard Dairy, just before Christmas in 2005, one of the things I found most exciting was the role of the cheesemonger as educator. The moment when cheeses are tasted and discussed across the cheese counter is much more than a simple retail transaction. It is a dialogue that allows information to be passed back and forth: the customer might discover a new cheese, or the monger receive feedback that can be passed back to the cheesemaker.
Cheeses that improve are quickly rewarded with better sales, problems are identified, and batch variation is revealed: we learn to taste together. Within those transactions, which last for only a couple of minutes, a lot remains unsaid. In fact, I think the best cheesemongers often say the least—this is not the place for spouting facts. But there is so much that is fascinating about cheese, particularly when it can be shared in the right context.
Now, as the technical manager at Neal’s Yard Dairy, I am often asked for book recommendations, and while there are many brilliant cheese buying guides on the market, and fascinating treatises like Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking that explore the entire world of food, there has not been a book about cheese that I could point people towards that provided the right balance between cool science, historical context, and engaging storytelling.
So, along with my husband Francis—who teaches classes for the Dairy and writes about food and wine—we set out three years ago to write that book. What a journey it has been! So many of the things I thought I knew about cheese, the stories that we in the industry tell ourselves, were dispelled as we travelled, read journal articles and old manuscripts, and talked with scientists and cheesemakers from around the world about their work with and passion for farmhouse cheese.
The book is organised according to the life of a cheese, starting with the grasses and the animals, and moving on to the role of microbes and the cheesemaking process, as well as the pitfalls and complexities facing the cheesemaker. We look at things like:
- How all of the world’s diverse cheeses can be made from the same three ingredients: milk, rennet, and salt
- The relationship between farming practices and cheese flavour: do cheeses really taste different when animals graze on pasture versus when they live indoors? And does breed make a difference?
- The microbiome of cheese: farming for microbes is a hot topic, and cheesemakers are working to capture the uniqueness of their farms in the flavour of their cheeses by encouraging the beneficial microbes already in their milk
- How we think about cheese and risk—and why eating raw milk cheese is 6000 times safer than driving a car
- Why classic British territorial cheeses are so different from the styles of hard cheese made in continental Europe
The title of our book is Reinventing the Wheel: Milk, Microbes, and the Fight for Real Cheese. Perhaps a copy—or a ticket to a tasting that we are doing on February 3rd, which explores some of its themes—would make a fitting gift for the turophile in your life.
You may also enjoy tuning into this episode of BBC Radio 4's Food Programme, where Francis and I explore some of the ideas from the book and how they relate to the history and future of cheddar.
Lastly, if you’d like to read a little more, here’s an excerpt in which we talk about so-called ‘real cheese’ and why it matters: