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Immortal Milk

Adventures in Cheese

Immortal Milk Stilton with Jane Austen
Consider the Stilton.

Its marbled blues entice the eye. Its spiny mold pricks the nose. Its salt stings, its cream soothes, its metal commands the mouth. Stilton isn’t cheese. Stilton is a state of being.

I had this realization while watching the BBC’s recent adaptation of Sense and Sensibility. To celebrate its release, the heroine of my own love story, Chuck, had assembled some English cheeses. We had a stodgy Red Leicester, a tangy Cheshire, a biscuity Lancashire, and a Cheddar so full of sweet grass and rich butter we felt bucolic. But when we tasted the Stilton, our conversation about the cheese, the costumes, the adaptability of the novel in general and Austen in particular stopped. Awe enveloped us. Speech abandoned us. We were Stiltoned.

I don’t know how long this state lasted: Stilton lingers on your tongue as though it were whiling away a rainy afternoon in an English manor. But I do know my daze ended when I heard a snicker. I blinked myself back.

“You’re grunting,” said Chuck.

I listened. I was.

Chuck laughed, and instead of watching, we began musing about why the Stilton was so spellbinding. Did it trigger some English gene that had been latent in us since the Revolutionary War? Did it evoke the tastes we’d imagined when we’d watched those grand dinners in Jane Austen movies? Or did it just taste good, without a why?

Here’s my answer: We were enthused. When we were eating the Stilton, when I was swinishly grunting, the Stilton was enthusing us with its creamy, salty, moldy, stenchy self.

“Enthuse?” you might ask, as Chuck did.

That word sounds weird, but then so is the experience I’m describing. “Enthuse” comes from a Greek origin, entheos, which means “to be inspired or possessed by god.” It shares a root with “theology” and a prefix with “enthrall,” “entice,” and “enchant.” When you’re enthused, you’re deeply “in” something, though in no ordinary sense. You’re caught up, taken over. You’re seized by what enthuses you. It may be a god, as in “the spirit is in me.” It may be an Emma, as in “I’m lost in this book.” And it may be a Stilton. Enthused, you sing hosannas and hallelujahs. Enthused, you read until three in the morning and oversleep. Enthused, you grunt.

If “enthused” still sounds weird, then you might compare the enthusiast with the expert. An expert isn’t taken over by something, but through knowledge and know-how, masters it. An expert remains unmoved, detached, out (“ex”) of a thing’s power. “Expert” shares its root with “experience” and “peril,” which suggests that an expert not only becomes wise through trying and testing things, but also undergoes trials, takes risks. An expert heads out and confronts what an enthusiast leaps into and embraces. An expert doesn’t grunt.

So, an expert will tell you that Stilton is named after a small village to the north of London where it’s illegal to make Stilton. In fact (experts say “in fact” a lot), only seven dairies in England are allowed to make Stilton because the cheese has a special status, a “Protected Designation of Origin,” from the European Commission, so that other cheesemakers can’t use the name. And an expert will tell you that the name Stilton was first mentioned in 1722 by William Stukeley, who also helped invent archeology and excavate Stonehenge, but it was made famous by Cooper Thornhill, who lived in the village of Stilton and owned the Bell Inn. Thornhill discovered the cheese at a nearby farm. He loved it so much that he began bringing it to Stilton in bulk and selling it to travelers who passed through town on the Great North Road that linked London to northern England. His cheese trade thrived, and word of “Stilton” spread throughout the country until the town and the cheese became synonymous. An expert will also tell you—

“Maybe we should close the computer,” suggested Chuck. By “we” she meant me.

Not everyone likes hearing from experts, particularly when expertise gets read aloud from Web sites. Experts, it turns out, aren’t quite as likeable as Jane Austen.

Yet, experts can enhance our enthusiasm.

A philosopher I once met suggested that, instead of talking about experts and enthusiasts, I should use the French distinction between amateur and connaisseur. At the root of amateur, he told me, lies the Latin verb amare, “to love,” while connaisseur comes from the verb “to know,” and wasn’t love what I wanted?

I did, but at that moment I also wanted to know why the French always have a way to say something that, as French speakers will quickly tell you, can’t be said in English. Le mot juste, préciser, je ne sais quoi. Whenever I’m around French phrase droppers, I feel as though my English comes from a Dumpster.

Much later, and after a long time of figuring that the philosopher must be right, I had an esprit de l’escalier. I realized that we want to know what we love. Knowledge and love, as those early translations of the Bible hint (“And Adam knew Eve his wife; and she conceived”), can be very close, and knowing more can lead to loving more. That’s probably why we seek out experts. We get enthused by Stilton or Jane Austen and we take an evening course on the Regency novel or read aloud from the Stilton Cheesemakers’ Association Web site, because we believe that what experts have to tell us can be a boon. As much as the philosopher was right—as much as I wanted to stress love—I didn’t want to divide it from knowledge. I also didn’t want to write about “my amorousness for cheese.” So, I decided to stick with English, with expertise and enthusiasm, and with a new appreciation for the sparks that fly between the enthusiast’s love and the expert’s knowledge.

Still, that didn’t change the fact that experts can sometimes be bores.

Experts may enhance, may even share our love, but often enough, through footnote, fact, and figure, they turn what once possessed us into material fit for library shelves or Power-Point. Often, we leave experts less enthused than we arrived.

What, I wondered, would a book about cheese look like if it sprang not from expertise but enthusiasm? Would it be full of exclamations? Would it be void of facts? Would it honor a reader’s enthusiasm rather than punish it?

I went looking for one. I found a lot of excellent guidebooks: guides to French cheeses, guides to Italian cheeses, guides to the cheeses of the world and the cheeses of Vermont. I found a few books on single cheeses. In an essay called “Cheese,” I found G. K. Chesterton’s winking promise to publish a five-volume book on The Neglect of Cheese in European Literature. I found books by New Yorkers who’d left New York to travel the country in search of the perfect goat cheese or become cheesemakers in Vermont and I greenly wondered why Chuck and I hadn’t bought a homestead with sheep. I found a few cool blogs. But what I didn’t find was a book that spoke to my experience of eating a Stilton, not even Trevor Hickman’s thoroughly researched The History of Stilton Cheese. So I resolved to write one.

I turned to Jane Austen for help.

Fortunately, she has a scene in which Stilton figures.

It’s in Emma, early on, when Emma is trying to make a match between the uppish Mr. Elton and her lowly friend, Harriet. Emma leaves the two alone so love can bloom between them and, when she spies them from a distance, she feels hopeful: “Mr. Elton was speaking with animation, Harriet listening with a very pleased attention.” Her matchmaking looks as though it’s working. Alas, Emma soon learns with “some disappointment” that what animated Mr. Elton and pleased Harriet was, among other things, “the Stilton cheese.”

Like Emma, I value love, but unlike her, I think love and cheese go together. This book celebrates that match. Each chapter takes up a question I’ve had. Why do we relish cheese? What cheese facts does a cheese lover need to know? How is cheese made and who makes it best? What does cheese have to do with being cheesy? Why does cheese comfort us, even when it reeks? And what, when glimpsed as a whole, does the world of cheese look like?

In my search for answers, I’ve dragged Chuck as near as Formaggio Kitchen in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and as far as the Slow Food International Cheese Festival in Bra, Italy. We’ve endured surly cheesemongers in Paris and dodged pissing goats in Vermont; we’ve looked down into curd and up at the cosmos; we even climbed a snow-encrusted, lynx-trodden mountain.

By sharing with you the answers we’ve found on these adventures, we hope to echo Mr. Elton’s animation and deepen your love for cheese.

"An elegant and nuanced brand of food writing...For student foodies, or even just the average cheese-lover, Immortal Milk may hit the ideal blend of education and indulgence." —Columbia Spectator