It may be just ‘the corpse of milk’, as James Joyce would have it, but how dull the world would be without cheese. Think about it: no Welsh rarebit, no croque-monsieurs, no pizza quattro formaggi, no gooey gratins or oozing omelettes, no cheeseburgers… But more importantly no platters of the stuff itself, in all its naked splendour, relaxing amid cool grapes and stacks of water biscuits at the end of a memorable meal, playing a key role, in fact, in making the meal memorable.
Whether it’s made of milk from a cow, a sheep, a goat, a buffalo, a camel or a yak, we’ve been wolfing it down for four thousand years. The French alone put away twenty-five kilos each per annum (compared with a British average of ten). From Abbaye de Belloc to Roquefort to Stinking Bishop to Yarg, we just can’t get enough. But by way of warning, I’d like to relate a little story which shows what happens when, indeed, you can’t get enough. Or, in fact, any…
It was a fine spring morning and I was engaged in civilised commerce with my local cholesterol dealer, a plump, pale-faced man with broken veins on his nose, renowned for stocking the best range of cheese in the city. He had been in particularly attentive form, darting around the shop with his paring iron, fetching samples of only his rarest, most exquisite, most pungent produce, and after I had sniffed and nibbled a goodly portion I made my decisions. I had a dinner party looming, with people on the guest list I wanted to impress, so it was quality all the way: three large slabs of it. The aged parmesan was eating well so a hefty chunk of that went in the bag too, and at the last second, a box of breath-takingly expensive biscuits. And a jar of pickled walnuts. And some quince jelly.
From time to time there’s a tipping point with shopping, a moment at which it becomes a case of ‘hang the expense’, and I had passed it: I was feeling buoyant, lavish, positively Victorian gentleman. In another era I would step into the street, slip a hand into the plush nap of my waistcoat pocket and press a magnanimous ha’penny on some snotty-faced urchin or hag before proceeding to my club for a pre-prandial basin of port.
My purchases came to a not insubstantial sum (it would be vulgar to spell it out), just a fraction over a nice round number. I selected two high-denomination notes from my wallet and held them out.
‘Let’s call it (nice round number), shall we?’ I purred.
The day missed a beat. In an instant the merchant’s fond smirk of connoisseurial indulgence fell away and he was regarding me as though I had just suggested a threesome with his wife.
‘No, I don’t think so,’ he said, eyeing the cash but making no move towards it.
In the suspended moment of milk-curdling silence that ensued a number of considerations flashed through my mind. How had I so misjudged the mood? Had I not been a faithful patron of this establishment for many a long year? Had I not handed over many a hard-earned shilling? Was I not practically family?
‘You can’t be serious,’ I squeaked.
He lowered his gaze to the counter top.
‘You really want the…?’
He pursed his lips.
I reopened my wallet and, with a slightly shaky hand, fished out another, bigger note. Blood was pounding in my ears. My next utterance was one I would come to regret.
‘You do realise,’ I said. ‘That if you don’t let me off the extra I will never … ever … do business with you again…?’
‘It’s not extra,’ he growled. ‘It’s the price.’
Blinking back hot tears of confusion I strode, through air as frosty as a roomful of cheese fumes will allow, to the door and out into the soured morning…
It was a number of weeks before I required more cheese. Another dinner party: work colleagues this time, including a well-travelled gourmand who was sure to know his Asadero from his Molbo. My wife refused, point-blank, to do my dirty work.
‘No. You know how you are with shop people. You’ve got to learn. Look what happened that time in Debenhams.’
‘I wasn’t anywhere near that mannequin’ I protested. ‘Come on, you have to help–’
And so it was that I found myself skulking outside the city’s most prestigious fromagerie, collar turned up, hands thrust in pockets, the mark of the addict upon me. I felt like an underage drinker trying to find a cooperative eighteen-year-old to go into the off-licence for a sixpack of Schweinwasser and a half-bottle of Krapnik. The first passerby I accosted, a middle-aged woman in a faux-fur coat, scuttled away as if being chased by a crocodile; the second, a tall man carrying a briefcase, was quite unnecessarily curt. At last, a smart young fellow with cropped hair and fashionable trousers accepted my money and listened attentively to my instructions (including a generous allowance that he purchase a nice piece of brie for himself) before swerving at the shop door and disappearing at speed up a side street.
In fact, it was to be a year and a half and a change of management before I crossed the threshold of Homage to Fromage again. I smile politely now when they name their astonishing prices, and pay by credit card to avoid any unpleasantness. Blessed, as they nearly say, are the cheesemongers.
Kevin Smith’s first novel, “Jammy Dodger” will be published in September 2012 by Sandstone Press.
All cheese paintings by Mike Geno: at www.mikegeno.com