How Do You Name a Cheese?

Cheese etymology

With Christmas on the horizon, it’s time to get all caught up in the festive spirit, and that means singing carols, wrapping awkwardly-shaped presents, and, most importantly, eating lots and lots and lots of yummy food!  So, with that in mind, let’s talk the etymology of cheese, arguably the best food on the planet and, let’s be honest, the main reason we all haven’t gone vegan.

 

Cheese has been around for millennia.  In fact, it’s so old we don’t quite know when it was first discovered.  It’s been unearthed at the ruins at Pompeii, in the tombs of ancient Egyptians, and even around the necks of thousand-year-old Chinese mummies, just in case they got peckish on the way to the afterlife.  So, it seems humanity’s infatuation with what is essentially just curdled milk is rather more than a passing fad.

 

Say Cheese

In Britain, we have a particular preoccupation with the stuff, eating it with pretty much any food we can get our hands on, so much so that we manage to consume over 700,000 tonnes of it every year.  And when it comes to production, we’re no slouches either. According to the British Cheese Board, there are over 700 different varieties of cheeses produced here, making it one of our most important exports.  From Cheddar to Croglin, Red Leicester to Red Devil, they all have their own unique recipes, but, more notably perhaps, also have their own unique names, many of which are quite bizarre.

 

So, now that I’ve got your taste buds a-tingling, let’s have a look at some of these weird and wonderful cheeses and the even weirder and more wonderful names they bear!

 

Worldwide Cheese: From Allerdale to Zamorano

The vast majority of cheeses are named after the places they were originally made, even your Tilly Whim and your Pantysgawn, which were named after caves in Dorset and a farm in Wales, respectively.  However, when it comes to stocking up your cheeseboard this Christmas, don’t be fooled, your Cheddar is probably not from Cheddar and your Stilton is definitely not from Stilton.

Cheddar, of course, originates from the eponymous gorge in Somerset, but, today, varieties of it are made across the globe, from South Africa to Argentina.  This year alone the UK imported more than 93,000 tonnes of foreign-made Cheddar. Stilton, meanwhile, holds a Protected Designation of Origin, or PDO, from the European Commission, meaning cheese can only be called Stilton if it is produced in the counties of Derbyshire, Leicestershire or Nottinghamshire.  The only trouble is, these days the village of Stilton is in the county of Cambridgeshire!

 

Smelly Cheese: ‘Your aroma precedes you, Sir’

The Italians also follow the geographical naming tradition, with Parmigiana-Reggiano (Parmesan) an amalgamation of its four areas of production, Parma, Reggio Emilia, Bologna, and Modena.  Similarly, Puzzone di Moena originated in the municipality of Moena. This cheese’s full name, however, refers not just to its origin, but to the rather pungent smell that accompanies it, and in English it translates to ‘Moena Stinker’!

In the German region of Hesse, near Frankfurt, cheesemakers chose to name their cheese after its method of production, simply calling it Handkäse, or ‘hand cheese’ because of the way it is formed by hand.  Locally, however, it has picked up a more colloquial name, and is now referred to as ‘Handkäse mit Musik’. The polite explanation for this nickname, ‘hard cheese with music’ is that the oil and vinegar provided with the cheese creates a distinct taste when combined, like the striking of a musical note.  However, the alternative explanation is that the ‘Musik’ might just refer to a different type of music, the flatulence one experiences after eating it!

Of course, we Brits can hardly mock stinky cheeses.  After all, it was in Gloucestershire that an ancient order of Cistercian monks created the aromatic Stinking Bishop, which has a scent so strong it could part the Red Sea.

 

A Cheese By Any Other Name Would Taste As Sweet 

Scotsman Humphrey Errington, one of Britain’s best cheesemakers, started up his business in 1983.  36 years later, and Errington Cheese has become a farming enterprise, having produced some of the best modern cheeses in the country.  But perhaps Humphrey’s greatest feat was impressing his mother-in-law, Maisie, after she proclaimed she did not like blue cheese. To do so, he created Maisie’s Kebbuck, (kebbuck being the Scots Gaelic word for ‘cheese’), an unpasteurised semi-hard white cheese, and thus produced quite probably the only cheese named after a cheesemaker’s mother-in-law!

Meanwhile, down in Sussex, one dairy decided to name one of their cheeses after someone equally deserving of recognition, a tax collector.  The Lord of the Hundreds is a hard, grainy cheese produced by The Traditional Cheese Dairy, based in Stonegate, and gets its name from the Saxon lord who once controlled the 100-acre land where the dairy now stands.  I’m sure it’s one of the nicer compliments a tax collector has ever got!

 

The Devil’s in the Dairy – A Cheese Legend

The final stop on this curdled journey takes us to Chalke Valley Cheese, and Alison French, a former biologist turned cheesemaker, who not only produces the aforementioned Tilly Whim, but also a creamy, sharp Cheddar by the name of Old Harry.  Unlike Tilly, Old Harry doesn’t get its name from a cave on the Dorset coast, but rather an outcrop of land known as the Old Harry Rocks. The chalk stacks mark the Easternmost point of the Jurassic Coast and are in fact an UNESCO World Heritage Site.

There are various legends around the naming of the rocks. Some say they were named after Harry Paye, an infamous pirate who hid behind them in wait for passing merchants, whilst others believe it refers to Viking Earl Harold, whose invasion was thwarted during a storm, only for his body, upon drowning, to be turned into a pillar of chalk.

The final legend, however, refers to the ancient tradition of Old Harry being used as a nickname for the Devil, probably as a result of people believing Henry VIII to be the Devil incarnate.  This legend states that the Devil once slept on the Dorset chalk stacks, and, due to “Old Harry’s” penchant for playing tricks, the rocks were named after him to warn passing ships to steer clear, lest they be drawn into wrath and ruin.

 

What a lovely name for a cheese…!

 

 

 

Blog written by Transcriber Lydia


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