Each week, culture intern Katherine will scour great works of literature for all the cheesy details your English teacher never showed you. Authors often include mentions of food and drink in their written works to give the reader a small glimpse into the culture and historic foodways of a particular place and era. This blog series will lend readers a helping hand and shed some light on the cheeses between the lines of the literary greats. Also, each week you’ll have a chance to win a special issue of culturemagazine. Last week’s winner was Frank J!
It is a truth universally acknowledged that an English author must mention English cheese at least twice in their writing. And Jane Austen is no exception to this rule. Why write about cheese, you ask? Well, because the English are pretty proud of their cheeses and can name over 700 different varieties native to the British Isles alone. And because cheese is a ubiquitous part of an Englishman’s diet consumed in the form of many delicious dishes like Welsh rarebit, toasted cheese, Ploughman’s lunch, cauliflower cheese, and cheese pies (and that doesn’t even include the other kinds of dairy!). Knowing that Austen drew from her everyday experiences and social observations to create the plots and characters of her novels, we can assume that many if not all of the little details represent and mimic the minutiae of Austen’s real life in the early 19th century, including the deliciously cheesy ones.
Finish that needlepoint and put the kettle on, we’re about to dive (with decorum) into the Regency Era…
Austen grew up at the Steventon Rectory in Hampshire where her clergy father doubled as a “gentleman farmer.” Her early letters describe food related events on the farm such as the sale of sheep, the arrival of a new maid who knew nothing of the dairy process and had to be “taught all,” and how the farm was self-sufficient and “kept the rectory supplied with pork, mutton, wheat, peas, barley and hops” and even bees to make honey. With this wealth of food related knowledge, it’s no wonder that edible items would appear throughout her novels. In the novel, Mansfield Park, Austen uses cheese to show how her characters try to climb the slippery social ladder of Regency England. Fanny, the heroine of the novel, left home at an early age and went to live with her much wealthier aunt and uncle in the English countryside. While living at Mansfield Park, Fanny witnessed the wild and scandalous life of her rich cousins and became the subject of ridicule for her widowed aunt, Mrs. Norris. Ever aware of another’s social status, Mrs. Norris always strived to be “in the know” and had a bad habit of pointing out when others lacked in pedigree or decorum.
After visiting their neighbors, Mrs. Norris and her nieces settle back into their carriage, rearranging packages of gifts and edible goods they acquired during their visit. Mrs. Norris instructs Fanny to carry a parcel, but quickly yells,
“don’t let it fall; it is a cream cheese, just like the excellent one [they] had at dinner.”
As anyone who’s schmeared a bagel would know, cream cheese is a soft, rich cheese, made of unskimmed milk enriched by the addition of cream. The Oxford English Dictionary further defines cream cheese as a figure of speech “sometimes used as a type of extreme fastidiousness of taste, elegance of language or style.” Despite its lofty reputation, cream cheese requires few ingredients or cheese making mechanisms. Made throughout the country, chiefly in Devonshire and Cornwall, cream cheese ranks as one of the most important of the English soft cheeses. With its rich taste, heavy ingredients, and rustic origins, cream cheese was a symbol of culinary luxury.
Her most food filled novel, Emma, focuses on a young heroine who is forever playing matchmaker (and often messing things up in the process). While many of the characters are described or related to food in some way, none are as obsessed with it as the local town vicar, Mr. Elton. A young, poor bachelor, Mr. Elton is a constant feature at others’ dinner tables and never turns down an invitation, especially if good food is in store…
“Mr. Elton was still talking, still engaged in some interesting detail; and Emma experienced some disappointment when she found that he was only giving his fair companion an account of the yesterday’s party at his friend Cole’s, and that she was come in herself for the Stilton cheese, the north Wiltshire, the butter, the cellery, the beet-root and all the dessert.”
Stilton cheese dates back to the early 1700s and boasts several different origin stories. Around 1730, the owner of the Bell Inn in Stilton came across this blue veined cheese while visiting a nearby farm. He loved it so much he made arrangements so that his inn would had exclusive rights to the cheese and so its popularity grew. There are numerous references to the area of Stilton as a cheese making community, including a recipe for blue Stilton in the book A General Treatise of Husbandry and Gardening.
Today, the cheese is preserved through PDO (protected designation of origin), which mandates that true Stilton cheese must come from one of three counties including Derbyshire, Leicestershire, and Nottinghamshire. During the Regency era, Stilton became popular with fox-hunters and other countryside travelers headed for their estates outside of London. Because the cheese could only be made in Stilton, it was transported throughout the country, available to those who could afford it. Since Austen didn’t live close to the Stilton area, the cheese was as much a delicacy for her as it was for poor Mr. Elton.
The other cheese mentioned is Wiltshire cheese, hailing from the county of the same name. Unlike Stilton, the name Wiltshire refers to a variety of high quality cheeses produced in the same county. During Austen’s time, Wiltshire cheeses became so popular, they inspired cheesemakers to mimic their characteristics with inferior quality cheese. One historical description recounts Somersetshire women attempting to adulterate their local cheeses with special rinses or rinds to appear more like the yellow-coated cheese from North Wiltshire.
Mr. William Marshall, a cheese expert of the time-period, described how the “narrow Loaf-cheese that goes under the name of North Wiltshire” became “high in fashion, as to fetch fifteen or twenty shillings a hundred weight more at market, than Thin Cheese of perhaps a superior quality.” Thanks to the particular dairying methods used throughout the county, Wiltshire cheese was of high and consistent quality. By the late 18th century, Wiltshire cheese sold for about 50 shillings per hundred weight as opposed to half that cost for a plain, farmhouse style cheese. With prices like that, can we really fault Mr. Elton for bragging about his cheese encounters?
As evident through her novels, Austen didn’t skimp with her cheese selections. Fresh cream cheese eventually made its way into the crust-less sandwiches popular at High Teas and both Wiltshire and Stilton are now imported around the world (and still sold for a pretty penny or two). Let’s just say, I know who I would ask to bring the cheese plate to my next tea party.