Ned Palmer talks to Clare Finney about his journey from jazz pianist to cheesemaker and the making of his new book: A Cheesemonger’s History of the British Isles
“It’s been unbelievable,” beams Ned Palmer—neither willing nor able to disguise his delight at the success of his literary debut. Though the title of the book, A Cheesemongers History of the British Isles, could hardly be construed as a cynical bid for a Sunday Times bestseller list, it’s now in its third print run. The people have spoken, and they’re hungry for histories of cheeses.
Specifically, they are hungry for this book: penned by a jazz pianist with degrees in philosophy, psychology and musical theatre, who stumbled upon cheesemongering by chance when he offered to help a friend, Todd Trethowan, sell his Gorwydd Caerphilly cheese in Borough Market. Upon trying Todd’s cheese, he experienced “what I can only call an epiphany. That might seem a disproportionate reaction to eating a piece of cheese, but proper caerphilly is one of the world’s great cheeses,” he writes. “I started asking Todd a lot of questions,” he continues. “How does milk turn into this?” and, “Why doesn’t all cheese taste this good?”
Todd recommended him for a job at Neal’s Yard Dairy—just for the time being, until the jazz career beckoned once more—and 19 years later, it seems safe to pronounce Ned as hooked.
Hooked on cheese
He’s hooked on the cheese, which he writes about with a winning blend of expertise and enthusiasm. He’s hooked on the people—“you can’t make good cheese if you’re not a decent human being”—and he’s hooked on the history. “Every cheese tells a story: about the terroir, about the culture of the people who made it, and about the changes during that period that resulted in it being made,” he enthuses. In A Cheesemongers History of the British Isles, “I like to say I am telling the story of Britain through the medium of cheese.”
Ned is nothing if not ambitious. In just 340 pages, he divides 4,000 years of British history into nine chapters, and assigns a cheese to each historical period. “It was quite an undertaking,” he says modestly of his efforts—and that’s before you get to the maps, guides and suggestions for further reading: a rich, delicious testament to the depth and breadth of Ned’s meticulous research. “My dad was a historian and one of my earliest memories is of going to ‘help’ him at the National Archive, so I’d already spent a lot of time in the British Library,” he explains. “I think that made the research less daunting.” He used Wikipedia as a ‘front end’—don’t we all?—“then I dug right down to the primary sources.” The Salisbury museum where the bones of people believed to be the first cheesemakers are on display, the monastic records, the Victorian books on household management and, as he came to what he calls the great cheese renaissance of the late 20th and 21st century, the cheesemakers themselves.
“I found myself really quite moved sometimes. I tracked down accounts of monastic dairies in the 16th century and in one I found the name of a cheesemaker, Katherine Dowe, and her assistant Alice Harys. I know how much they were paid,” Ned enthuses. “I even know that they were really good at the job, because they got more out of their milk than was expected at that time, according to a contemporaneous treatise on farming.” Despite the studious silence of the British Library reading rooms, upon experiencing this connection with a cheesemaker of 500 years ago Ned couldn’t help but exclaim aloud. Another instance in which he felt the hand of history reach out toward him makes my own hair stand on end. “I was talking to a Welsh cheese teacher about how she used to make caerphilly with her mum in the kitchen in the 1950s and she told me how they used to squeeze spinach juice into the young cheeses they put sage leaves in, because the sage made it black,” he recalls, “so they used it for colour. I remembered reading that that was something medieval cheesemakers did—and here I was speaking to someone still practicing it, hundreds of years later.”
Gorwydd Caerphilly is designated the cheese of the 14th to 16th centuries. Like Appleby’s Cheshire (1348-1547) and Stichelton or stilton (1688-1837), this was a relatively easy decision. “Each chapter is named after a cheese that is around today, that characterises a particular period. Cheshire made sense because it was during the 17th century that it became “massively famous. It drove the economy of Cheshire.” Ditto stilton: a cheese Ned describes as being “a quintessential product of the 18th century.”
Choosing a modern cheese for the Neolithic age (10,000-4,500 BC) proved more of a challenge. Though the 2003 report from Bristol University announcing the unearthing of direct chemical evidence for widespread dairying in prehistoric Britain was groundbreaking and thorough, it did not say exactly which type of cheese our ancestors were producing. Ned alighted on Sleightlett because it is made from goat’s milk (goats were among the first animals to be domesticated) and so low-tech “you could make it with a couple of bowls, a colander and a spoon,” he explains. Fittingly, it was also the first cheese he ever made alongside its maker, Mary Holbrook. Sadly, Mary passed away before Ned’s book came out. “I think if a Neolithic cheesemaker had visited Mary’s dairy, she would recognise what Mary was doing. She would recognise the steps and the resulting Sleightlett.”
For the most part, Ned’s book dwells on the past. Indeed, one of the reasons the title is so straightforward is so that he “kept an eye on the target,” he smiles. Had it been snappier, more pun-tastic (“I like puns, but you get a lot of them in this business and I do tire of them”), he might have got distracted by something that wasn’t history or cheese. Nevertheless, there is one chapter that looks at ‘postmodern’ cheeses (defined by Ned as “a playful mix of styles and influences”) and beyond; a chapter which starts at the year 2000 and is optimistically titled “Let a thousand cheeses bloom”.
The elephant in the room
Is Ned really that optimistic? “Obviously, Brexit is the elephant in the room—it is not going to help the cause of small producers,” he says bluntly. But then, he reminds me, history is full of threats and doom-mongers: “It’s like the industrial revolution, or when people worried that American cheddar would put our cheddar makers out of business; or in the Middle Ages, when we worried we’d not have enough men to work the land after the Black Death.” What he sees now is “more confidence in British produce than ever before. Thanks to people like Gary Rhodes and Fergus Henderson, we’re no longer in thrall to ‘fancy’ French cheeses.” More heartening still, we are seeing “a great return to the British territorials like red leicester and double gloucester.”
The story this book tells is as rich in intrigue as it is flavour. But the story of how the book came to be is also a compelling one. “I’d wanted to write a book since I was six years old,” Ned smiles. “Of course, then I thought it would be fiction. But when I became a cheesemonger, I thought about a manual detailing all the questions we get asked as cheesemongers; about cheeseboards and pairings with drinks.” Ned’s wife Imogen, a successful author of historical crime fiction, thought this idea needed work. “She said it was a bit boring; that it needed structure and narrative,” he continues, “and I increasingly agreed with her.” For a while his thoughts remained largely unformed, “scribbled on the back of fag packets”—then, in an event as miraculous as cheese itself, a literary agent attended one of Ned’s cheese tastings at Neal’s Yard Dairy. “He came up to me afterwards and asked if I had ever considered writing a book. I said: ‘I am, sort of’,” he recalls. “We arranged a meeting.” The rest—with a fair bit of work—is A Cheesemonger’s History.
Join Ned Palmer for free tips, tastings and recipes in the Demo Kitchen Wednesday 11th December at the Borough Market Evening of Cheese. Copies of A Cheesemonger’s History of the British Isles will be on sale on the night.