Ernest Shepard illustration, John Smart on John Squire, Cheddar Gorge, SF Issue 71

Dreaming of Cheese

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When I was writing a biography of John Hayward, T. S. Eliot’s flat-sharer and friend for many years, I was intrigued to come across a letter from Eliot to The Times. It was a reply to a certain Sir John Squire who wanted to erect a statue to the creator of Stilton cheese. Who was Squire and why was this distinguished man of letters bothered about cheese? It was time to look at Squire’s original letter in the British Library.

The story really began with another letter to The Times. In 1935 M. Theodore Rousseau, a Frenchman visiting London, complained that he could not get Stilton at any London restaurant. He bemoaned the lack of interest the English took in their native cheese. If France had invented something as delicious, he wrote, he was sure that a statue would have been erected – as had been the case with Madame Harel, the creator of Camembert. A brisk correspondence followed. Some writers had managed to find Stilton; others were told it was out of season or faced blank incomprehension. One correspondent noted that so-called Cheshire cheese was an outrage to those who knew the real thing and that even good restaurants only offered diners a choice between ‘pink’ and ‘yellow’ cheese.

As a habitual letter-writer to The Times, Sir John Squire, poet, editor of the monthly London Mercury and man-about-town, pounced on the complaint. He extolled the merits of British cheese and asked: ‘What is killing the native cheese industry?’ Perhaps, he suggested, it was the snobbery attached to anything foreign-sounding – just as the ballerina Miss Jones had to become Miss Joneova and Mr Robinson the tenor became Signor Robinelli. Perhaps it was the lack of legal protection given to British brand names. At any rate, his request in London restaurants for Cheshire cheese had produced either no cheese at all or merely a soapy substance imported under the trade designation of ‘Cheshire’, which was a libel on tha

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When I was writing a biography of John Hayward, T. S. Eliot’s flat-sharer and friend for many years, I was intrigued to come across a letter from Eliot to The Times. It was a reply to a certain Sir John Squire who wanted to erect a statue to the creator of Stilton cheese. Who was Squire and why was this distinguished man of letters bothered about cheese? It was time to look at Squire’s original letter in the British Library.

The story really began with another letter to The Times. In 1935 M. Theodore Rousseau, a Frenchman visiting London, complained that he could not get Stilton at any London restaurant. He bemoaned the lack of interest the English took in their native cheese. If France had invented something as delicious, he wrote, he was sure that a statue would have been erected – as had been the case with Madame Harel, the creator of Camembert. A brisk correspondence followed. Some writers had managed to find Stilton; others were told it was out of season or faced blank incomprehension. One correspondent noted that so-called Cheshire cheese was an outrage to those who knew the real thing and that even good restaurants only offered diners a choice between ‘pink’ and ‘yellow’ cheese.

As a habitual letter-writer to The Times, Sir John Squire, poet, editor of the monthly London Mercury and man-about-town, pounced on the complaint. He extolled the merits of British cheese and asked: ‘What is killing the native cheese industry?’ Perhaps, he suggested, it was the snobbery attached to anything foreign-sounding – just as the ballerina Miss Jones had to become Miss Joneova and Mr Robinson the tenor became Signor Robinelli. Perhaps it was the lack of legal protection given to British brand names. At any rate, his request in London restaurants for Cheshire cheese had produced either no cheese at all or merely a soapy substance imported under the trade designation of ‘Cheshire’, which was a libel on that cheese. ‘Do people really want to go to the Dorchester to be given the choice of Camembert or Gorgonzola?’ he asked. Perhaps the fault lay with modern urban housekeeping, the willingness of ‘labour-saving wives to get anything out of a labour-saving tin, or a silver-paper packet’. Finally, Squire suggested that a statue be erected to Mrs Paulet of Wymondham, the inventor of Stilton, ‘this noble fragrant cheese, the cheese of poets’. He was ready to start a fund . . . He duly became chairman of the Stilton Memorial Committee.

T. S. Eliot was a fellow cheese-lover. ‘Never commit yourself to a cheese without having first . . . examined it,’ he told a friend. He had long regarded Squire as a hopeless reactionary but he replied, praising Squire for his ‘manly and spirited defence’ of Stilton. He nevertheless contested its claims to pre-eminence: Wensleydale, not Stilton, was the ‘Mozart of cheeses’. In any case, a statue was not a good idea: a Society for the Preservation of Ancient Cheeses was the way forward. (Squire was a keen member of a whole range of conservation societies, including the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings.) ‘But this is no time for disputes between eaters of English cheese,’ Eliot wrote, ‘the situation is precarious and we must stick together.’ The appreciation of cheese was perhaps the only thing upon which the two men could agree.

The correspondence in The Times and the publication in 1936 of Osbert Burdett’s Little Book of Cheese suggested to Squire another venture. He invited a group of friends and writers to contribute a chapter each to a book championing their favourite cheese. In 1937 Cheddar Gorge was published at 10s 6d, with a collectors’ edition of fifty copies at 10 guineas. Ernest Shepard provided the illustrations, some in the comic style of his work for Punch, others offering a lyrical view of country life and customs. Squire thought these ‘quite lovely, far better than his Christopher Robin stuff’.

In his introduction Squire noted the decline of British cheeses. Many had already disappeared. Some, he granted, were not to be regretted – ‘a man who ate Suffolk cheese might as well be chewing old motor tyres’ – but many were real losses. The problem was ignorance. To redress this, each contributor was sent off to tour their local region, visit farmers and dairies, and talk to the cheesemakers, who were nearly always farmers’ wives. Cheddar Gorge records a series of journeys through England from Devon to Yorkshire, and beyond. There are visits to the notable inns and clubs where cheese was to be enjoyed: the Cheshire Cheese in Fleet Street, the Bell at Stilton and the Boar’s Head at Caerphilly. Squire himself wrote on Stilton, ‘the King of Cheeses’. The praises of Scotland’s only cheese, the fast disappearing Ayrshire Dunlop, were sung by Moray McLaren. The Irish poet and nationalist Oliver St John Gogarty wanted to reclaim the names of the genuine Irish cheeses of Ardagh, Galtee and Whitehorn, whose true identities were concealed under ‘Irish’ Cheddar or ‘Irish’ Stilton. Cheese, he suggested, had a ‘peaceful and soporific effect’ which would promote friendship between nations.

Vyvyan Holland, Oscar Wilde’s son, chose Cheshire, a truly British cheese as it came in three colours – red, white and blue. Osbert Burdett wrote of the May Day celebrations in Randwick, near Stroud, when three large Gloucester cheeses, garlanded with flowers, were paraded through the village and serenaded by the local band. The first cuts from them were distributed to all the young maids in the neighbourhood as a kind of fertility rite.

Science, history, recipes and anecdotes are woven together in Cheddar Gorge. Some of Squire’s contributors write in detail about the chemistry of cheese production and muse on the making of rennet. The food writer André Simon provides a chemical analysis of the nearly extinct Blue Vinny from Dorset. Farmers in the county told him that its mysterious colour came from leaving it to mature beside mouldy old leather shoes and harnesses. There is the tale of the venerable Stilton that purred like a cat when stroked, and the story of a well-known Manchester cheese factor who always bought the cheese the mice had been at since they were the best judges.

Many stories are told of cheeses of legendary size. The then biggest cheese in the world, a gargantuan Cheddar weighing around 550 kilogrammes, was presented to Queen Victoria. In 1909 a prize-winning Cheshire weighing 200lbs was given to her son Edward VII. The following year Mr Percy Cooke of Tattenhall farm near Chester delivered an order for twenty Cheshire cheeses with a combined weight of two and a half tons. One monstrous cheese was big enough to contain a 13-year-old child.

Several of Sir John’s contributors discuss Welsh Rarebit and earn his scorn for using the term – ‘a vile modern refinement of Welsh Rabbit’. The popular novelist Horace Annersley Vachell was given the recipe grudgingly by his aunt, who made him promise to keep it secret. A friend badgered him to make it. He gave her a list of the ingredients (including a confusing extra two or three he had no intention of actually using) and prepared the dish behind a tall screen. The result was delicious – but when she tried to recreate the recipe it was a disaster. The secret stayed with him until after his aunt’s death, but at last he could now share the recipe:

Cut half a pound of Cheddar Cheese into thin slices and put them in a stew pan. Add three tablespoonsful of milk and a gill of cream, the yolks of three eggs and the whites of two. Season with pepper and salt.

Whip it until it boils – and it is done.

Let your guests be handed squares of toast. Let the cheese be served in a dish. The guests will spread the hot cheese on the hot toast . . .

Many of Squire’s contributors had strong views about how cheese should be served. His friend Henry Stevens enjoyed eating Leicester with sweet ‘pin-money’ onions, but Leicester and watercress were the ideal combination. Ambrose Heath thought that celery or celery salt might go with Stilton or Cheshire, but that Wensleydale was best served with no accompaniments except perhaps a few plain leaves of lamb’s lettuce. Dieticians of the time warned against the ‘providential’ combination of bread and cheese, but Vyvyan Holland told his readers not to listen to the ‘peevish vapourings of the jealous dyspeptic’.

And then there was the question of what to drink with cheese. Port was traditional with Stilton. Cheddar and vintage port were ‘Heavenly Twins’ and promised health and longevity, wrote Horace Vachell, but the Scot Moray McLaren warned against it – ‘a rich, sweet, English drink’, fine in its place but offensive at the end of a meal. ‘English cheeses are plain fellows better suited to a plain oaken table, a clean cloth and a tankard,’ wrote the food writer Ambrose Heath. ‘Beer or burgundy to my thinking; but, better still, water, and whatever you like afterwards,’ prescribed Sir John.

Above all, Cheddar Gorge reflects Squire’s own love of all things rural and traditional. A doughty campaigner, he was best known for saving Stonehenge from being surrounded by commercial building. He fought to preserve the countryside from the car and the ribbon development of the 1920s and ’30s. The cheese board was his battleground in miniature. He sided with the small farmer against the factory; the native against the foreign; the art of cheese-making against the product of the white-clad scientist; the tasty against the bland.

His defence of British cheese was one campaign which was entirely successful. When Cheddar Gorge was published, no British cheese was being exported. Squire would have been amazed to hear that eighty years on there were more than 750 types of British cheese and the export trade was worth £615 million.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 71 © John Smart 2021


About the contributor

John Smart lives in an old pub in Norfolk. He has written on John Hayward and T. S. Eliot, and on Modernism and twentieth-century drama, and is currently writing a life of Sir John Squire.

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