In the latest in her series on cooking methods and foodstuffs that have fallen from favour over the years, food writer and historian Bee Wilson recreates an unusual Victorian cheese dish
What we call appetite is largely nostalgia. We are always hankering for earlier tastes—studies show that even babies prefer the flavours they remember from their mother’s diet—so perhaps it’s only natural that when trying to eat better, we often look to an idealised past, when everything was pure as lettuce and sweet as butter.
In our collective imagination, there is a perfect moment—let’s call it Back Then—when food was untainted. We picture our forebears going shopping at idyllic food markets rather like Borough Market, carrying baskets overflowing with earthy carrots, pink stalks of rhubarb, rich raw milk and cream. If only we could get back to this place—full of tradition and wisdom—we, too, could eat well. A new book called 100 Million Years of Food by anthropologist Stephen Le suggests that we would all be healthier if we switched to eating like our ancestors; the further back, the better.
I can see the appeal of Back Then. The modern food supply, with its array of hyper-processed, over-sugared items is making millions of people unwell. Diet-related ill health is now the leading cause of death and disease in the world, ahead of tobacco. Much of what is for sale as ‘food’ is not worthy of the name. It’s tempting to think we’ll find the answer by eating like our great-grandmothers.
But we forget that plenty of people in the past ate a terrible diet too—one based on food that was scarce, unbalanced or adulterated. Consider cheese in the 19th century. Double gloucester was popular, then as now, particularly when melted on toast. Sometimes, though, instead of being coloured orange with annatto—a pretty harmless vegetable dye, unless you are allergic to it—the cheese was dyed with highly toxic lead-based pigments. In one case, a Mr Wright from Cambridge stayed at a West Country inn and suffered excruciating stomach pains after a supper of toasted cheese. The inn keeper had no idea she had bought cheese coloured with red house paint.
Specks and rotten parts
Much cheese was also putrid. In a recipe for cheese on toast, William Kitchiner warns that we should “cut out all the specks and rotten parts” before laying the cheese on the bread. Sometimes it looked fresh but wasn’t. One of the nastiest swindles of the working class food markets of Manchester in the 1840s was a trick called ‘polishing’. The seller took a putrid cheese and covered the cut surface with a layer of fresh cheese, to fool the customer.
At least we no longer have to worry about such outrageous food frauds. Admittedly, much modern ‘plastic’ cheese is lacking in character, but I’d take that over being outright poisoned. Besides, if you seek it out, it’s possible now to buy cheese—and bread, and fruit and vegetables—of a better quality than anyone ate in Britain at any time in the past. When you buy a wedge of double gloucester from Neal’s Yard Dairy, you know it will be perfectly lactic and crumbly and in no way compromised with dodgy dyes.
We are right to think that food markets such as Borough point the way to a different, better way of eating. Look at the heady bouquets of green dill and parsley, the bunches of asparagus, the shiny mackerel. It’s a place where pleasure and health are one and the same. When I stroll through Borough, I don’t see the past. Our great-grandmothers never knew such a market quite like this. If we are lucky, it’s the future.
The first celebrity chef
I wanted to find a Victorian cheese recipe to celebrate the fact that—unlike the Victorians—we can count on our cheese being wholesome. I was surprised by how little variation there was in their repertoire of cheese dishes. Many of the cookbooks had only macaroni cheese or cheese soufflé. Then again, most cheese was eaten simply as cheese, with bread. Kitchiner complained that it was common in taverns to find that the loaf of bread had been ruined by “Epicures paring off the crust to eat with cheese”. But then I hit the jackpot with a recipe from Alexis Soyer—sometimes called the first celebrity chef, he cooked for the troops in the Crimean war. Soyer’s 1851 recipe is not just cheese soufflé or macaroni but the two combined! He calls it Neapolitan fondue, a name I like very much.
I made it with a piece of wonderfully springy, savoury single gloucester made by Charles Martell (bought from the Cambridge Cheese Shop), combined with parmesan, a cheese the Victorians adored.
When I started cooking, I had visions of how elegant this macaroni soufflé would look emerging from the oven with collars of baking parchment. But unlike Soyer, I am not a meticulous Victorian chef but a 21st century slob with three children. As I reached the folding stage, my youngest—aged seven and ravenous, as usual—chose this moment to start banging empty egg shells on the kitchen counter to see how many pieces he could break them into. I suddenly realised kitchen origami was beyond me and quickly poured the soufflé into two baking dishes. It may not have been what Soyer intended, but it still came out more elegant and puffy than our usual macaroni cheese, with a nice bite from cayenne pepper.