Cheese History Lessons
The great thing about working behind a retail counter is that you never know who you’re going to meet.
Twelve years ago, while working for Cowgirl Creamery in Point Reyes Station, I struck up a friendship with Sean Thackrey, a well-regarded local figure, best known for his extraordinary winemaking abilities involving unusual grape varieties. In addition to creating a successful winemaking business, Sean has also amassed a world-class collection of antiquarian books and texts on wine production, the subject of which made for some lengthy and lively discussions between us.
These works, some of which pre-date medieval times, are extraordinary and, on a couple of occasions, he allowed me to spend a leisurely afternoon, gently looking though some of these volumes, wrestling with Latin and early French (wishing I’d paid more attention to both at school) and generally be awe-struck by the weight – both physical and informational - that these books represented.
So I was rendered nearly speechless when one rainy February day Sean appeared at the cheese counter to give me a package containing a leather bound volume dating from 1788. The book, titled Rural Economy, was written by William Marshall who, being a character of some means, took it upon himself to conduct an amazingly detailed survey of the agricultural practices throughout England in the 18th century. For publishing purposes, he divided the country into six districts, allocating two volumes to each. The volume given to me was part of a “lot” that Sean had purchased, but finding that it contained more about 18th century cheesemaking than winemaking, he generously passed it on.
The presentation of that book, for me signaled the beginning of a minor obsession. Since then, as funds allow, the collection has grown to include books on the evolution of American cheesemaking and beyond.
For years these books have been tucked away on my bookshelf, of value to me and my endless curiosity on the subject. The fascination being that they give such a clear idea of what daily life was like at the time of writing. Not only are cheesemaking methods described in detail, but the characters involved, the amounts of money exchanged, relationships with buyers, struggles with the landlord, what they ate for lunch and so on.
I never expected they’d have a broader purpose until recently, when I found myself in Greensboro, VT, at a small gathering of cheese industry folk, listening with great attention to an historic presentation by Dr. Paul Kindstedt, a professor at the University of Vermont and the author of American Farmstead Cheese. Kinstedt has been spending much of the last year writing a book on the history of cheesemaking from Neolithic times to the 20th century. As you can imagine, this is a monumental task and, as far as I know, never previously attempted – at least not in such detail.
Ironically, Dr Kindstedt told us, some of his remaining challenges lie in tracking down reliable information from the last three centuries, particularly on the specifics of cheesemaking recipes. Apparently, this is because many of the texts have not yet been cataloged or made available in digital format, making research much more difficult.
As he relayed to us some of the missing links, my mind began culling busily through sections and chapters of the old books on my shelf, realizing I had answers to several questions that Kindstedt had been researching!
More importantly, the facts contained in these old books will now become part of a much larger account of the history of cheesemaking, well beyond my little collection.
Dr. Kinstedt is coming to visit my books in January. He’s as excited as I am. I wish Sean could be there…