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Ned Palmer's Top Five Book & Cheese Pairings

Posted on 29th November 2021 by Anna Orhanen

As a perfect festive treat for our readers, the author of bestselling former Waterstones Non-Fiction Book of the Month A Cheesemonger's History of the British Isles and the new, eminently gift-worthy A Cheesemonger's Compendium of British & Irish Cheese shares five tremendous reads, from classic fiction to reflections on liberalism, paired with the most fitting cheeses. Who Gouda ask for more?

Wintersmith by Terry Pratchett

Of all Terry Pratchett’s marvellously bizarre characters, the one I most want to meet is Horace, who makes his first appearance in Wintersmith, the third book in the Tiffany Aching series. Horace is a cheese, of a style called Lancre Blue, known for their tendency to attack other cheeses unless they are nailed down. Horace eats mice, can bite through a broomstick and ends Wintersmith dressed in the Nac Mac Feegle’s tartan – a great honour for a cheese. The reason for his singular personality is that he is made by a witch, Tiffany herself.

I’d love to try a piece of Horace, if he didn’t mind, paired with a cautious sip of Scumble, the Discworld’s fearsome answer to cider brandies like Applejack and Calvados. For an Earthly equivalent, one could try Hebridean Blue. Made by the Reade family on the Isle of Mull, it’s a rugged cheese from a rugged place. As for a drink pairing, that’s easy because the Isle of Mull is also home to Tobermory, a whisky whose spent grain provides feed for the Reade’s cows. What grows together goes together. 

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Hilarious, exuberant and beautifully told, Terry Pratchett’s highly entertaining tale sees Tiffany Aching attract some adoring attention from Winter itself – with possibly disastrous consequences.
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Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

You might think it a bit of a challenge to match a cheese to a book of such intense passion, momentous betrayal and all but unbearable tragedy, but actually I have a couple of options. Geographical matches are traditional in cheese and literature pairings, which is fine because the Yorkshire Moors where Brontë’s book is set are the home of a sweet and nutty alpine style called Summerfield, made in Botton Creamery by the lovely people of the Camphill Village trust, and their herd of happy, healthy Dairy Shorthorns. 

Mind you, the heights don’t wuther so much in the Summer when this cheese is made, so you could go for a pairing based on the emotional content of the book. Given that it is such a tragic tale, I would suggest a contrasting rather than complimentary match: traditional farmhouse Stonebeck Wensleydale made by the Hattan family to a slow gentle recipe. It’s a comfortingly creamy cheese that goes well with a slice of fruitcake and a nice cup of tea.

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Detailing Cathy and Heathcliff’s self-destructive relationship amidst the wild, feral atmosphere of the Yorkshire moors, Emily Brontë’s sole published novel evokes the violence of doomed romance like no other work of literature.
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How To Be A Liberal by Ian Dunt

If you wanted to eat your way through the history of Liberalism, you’d start with Feta, since Liberalism has its roots in philosophy, and philosophy, as everyone knows, was born in Greece. With a brief nod to the Polish polymath Copernicus and his favourite cheese the smoked sheep’s milk Oscypek, and the Italian friar Giordano Bruno’s much beloved Parmesan, your next major port of call would be Descartes, who provided the philosophical basis of Liberalism. As a proud son of of Touraine he was partial to the famous goat’s cheese St. Maure de Touraine, although he spent his working life in the Low Countries where the brain food of choice was Gouda. As Dunt would agree – or at least he will if he wants a nice big piece of cheese - Liberalism really flowered with the work of the great political philosopher Harriet Taylor and her colleague and eventual lover John Stuart Mill. They met, and so began ‘the greatest love story in the history of ideas’ in 1830, when the world was teetering on the brink of the Age of Cheddar. However, as Dunt points out, Liberalism’s great battle with the forces of repression is not over, and in his last chapter, stirringly named ‘Tomorrow’ he outlines the threat of toxic nationalism and the grim reality that lies beneath it. In this spirit I would present the eminently post-national Stichelton, a Stilton-style cheese made by the American Joe Schneider who began his career making Feta with a Turk in Eindhoven. 

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Political journalist Ian Dunt presents a cogent and engaging defence of liberalism, showing why its commitment to truth and freedom can function as a much-needed antidote to the rampant nationalism and anti-intellectualism of our day.
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The House by Tom Watson and Imogen Robertson

Disclaimer: I actually know these writers, because I am married to one of them and the other one comes round now and again. That’s ok however, because I am going to criticise this book for its lack of cheese.

I would make a terrible fiction writer because I can’t bear to be as horrible to my characters as you need to be to create a riveting plot, but Watson and Robertson are gleefully unpleasant to their protagonist, the Labour MP Owen McKenna. His one-time friend Philip has defected to the other side of the aisle and is now a Conservative MP, he is beset by guilt over the political downfall of his friend Jay, and he is being blackmailed by a corrupt political operative and plotted against by a coldly terrifying psychopath. And what with all of this, at no time in the story does he get to eat any cheese. I would have had a scene where the suffering Owen is visited by a friendly cheesemonger who brings round some comfort in the form of a hunk of Lincolnshire Poacher, a postmodern hybrid cheese with the sweetness and suppleness of a gruyere and the savoury bite of a Cheddar, paired with a couple of bottles of the healthily low-alcohol yet intensely flavourful Kernel Brewery’s Table Beer. 

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Bitter Westminster rivalry, cold-blooded ambition and dangerous secrets rack up as former allies-turned-enemies clash in this scalpel-sharp debut thriller from former Deputy Leader of the Labour Party Tom Watson and Imogen Robertson.
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At Christmas We Feast by Annie Gray

Gray’s books, appropriately for histories of food and eating, are as studded with fascinating food facts as a Christmas pudding is with currants, and the writing is sensuously vivid such that reading them always makes me hungry. They are also full of wisdom, like this little cracker, ‘Cheese is not just for Christmas, it is most definitely a year-round food.’ Quite so, but then at the same time Christmas is the season to eat a really heroic amount of cheese - Gray points out that Stilton makers sell 70% of their cheese at Christmas time. 

So the obvious cheese to accompany At Christmas We Feast would be a Stilton, washed down with the traditional glass of port. However, if you felt like reviving lost traditions, and this book is the place to go to find those, you could have a go at pepper cake and cheese, the Christmas treat of the 17th and 18th centuries. Gray has a recipe for authentic pepper cake, or if you were feeling lazy, you could get some Parkin, a rich sticky ginger cake made in the northern parts of Great Britain. Presumably Yorkshire Parkin is to be had with Wensleydale and Lancashire Parkin with, well, Lancashire. Intriguingly Mrs Bell, a famed and beloved Yorkshire cheesemaker suggests eating Parkin with her Harrogate or Yorkshire Blues, both rich and creamy cheeses of considerable depth and complexity. The Scots make their own Parkin, or Perkins which are more like ginger biscuits and would be worth trying with Scotland’s answer to Roquefort, Lanark Blue.

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From gluttonous Tudor feasts to Victorian treats that form an inseparable part of our culinary Christmas traditions to this day, Dr Annie Gray’s delightfully witty volume treats the reader to classic festive recipes along with the fascinating cultural history of yuletide.
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