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Healthy eating - crackers and cheese.  Wellcome Images No.N0028321.

Healthy eating – crackers and cheese.
Wellcome Images No.N0028321.

One of those quotations that comes up again and again is General de Gaulle’s complaint about the impossibility of uniting France: “How can anyone govern a nation that has two hundred and forty-six different kinds of cheese?” For the serious gourmet, of course, the riposte is, “How could you not want to govern a nation with that much cheese?” France’s cheeses are justly celebrated. Less well-known is Britain’s wealth of cheeses: sweet or strong, creamy or crumbly, pale or orange red, with or without the blue that comes from mould and yes, made from various milks (contrary to common belief, one does not have to cross the Channel to meet cheese made from sheep or goat’s milk). The heritage is a long one: Cheshire, Britain’s oldest cheese, dates from at least the eleventh century and is mentioned in the Doomsday Book – it was old enough and famous enough for London to have pubs named the Cheshire Cheese before Camembert was even thought of. This is British Cheese Week, a week of events to celebrate this wealth (for more information, visit the appropriately named British Cheese Board or simply Google to find recipe sites such as this one). With apologies to any lactose-intolerant readers, today’s posting exploring the Wellcome Library holdings takes as guiding principle the words of the nation’s favourite eccentric plasticine inventor: “Cheese, Gromit! That’s it! We’ll go somewhere where there’s cheese!”

Six types of press: cheese, wine (two), printing, clothes, and rolling. Engraving. Wellcome Images. No. V0023780.

Six types of press: cheese, wine (two), printing, clothes, and rolling. Engraving. Wellcome Images. No. V0023780.

First, make your cheese. As has been mentioned before, the Wellcome Library’s manuscript books of recipes often contain not merely medical advice, but information on anything that might help to run a household. One such mixed bag is the book compiled in the late seventeenth century by the Boyle family (one of the writers is apparently Katherine Boyle, afterwards Lady Ranelagh (1614-1691), who was the sister of the physicist Robert Boyle). (MS.1340, complete digitised facsimile here.) Most of the recipes are medical but we also find many culinary ones, including several for cheese. We will pass over the recipe for “slipcoat cheese” as a little complicated for beginners and instead give the one for “a winter cheese”, to give our readers something consoling to read as the British weather begins to bite:


Take the Mornings Milk Strained, and the Cream of the morning and night before strained into it, if it be too cold warm some of the Milk: Put a little quick Rennet into it the less the milder it will be, Cover it and let it come [= curdle] leisurely[;] when it is come turn it gently with a thin disk, pressing it down with warm hands, Whey it [= drain off the whey] and heave it into a Cheese vate [= vat], laying a plank on it press it by degrees, Cloth it and turn it as you See cause, about 4 hours after when it is well wrung turn it out of the vate into a clean tubb and with a long knife Slash it in thin pieces and wipe them dry with a cloth and put them in fair water in another tubb, then dry them in a cloth and put them in the former tubb, Mash it all to crumbles, and having saved 3 pints or less of the Nights Cream not put into the Cheese before pour that Cream into the Crumbled Cheese now, Mix it very well and then heave it gently into the Cheese-vate; having a wett Cloth in it, Lay the plank very warily and weight very little at first, turn it that Night in Moist Cloths and next day you may put on more weight but with care Salt it. Some like Butter in stead of Cream in the Mashing. It may be made from the beginning of May till the latter end of August. (The recipe is split between two pages, beginning on MS.1340/67 and continuing on MS.1340/68.)

Just the thing to bring out in the dark days of winter, though the recipe has its frustrating aspects. These are recipes written as an aide memoire, or a note to future generations of the family: they are not a complete step-by-step guide for a stranger to follow, and so assume a great deal that is not made explicit, dodge back to expand on things mentioned before, and generally have a more conversational tone than today’s instruction manuals. How much swearing there would be from anyone who tried to follow this recipe from scratch without reading it through first: that casual mention two-thirds of the way through of “having saved 3 pints or less of the Nights Cream not put into the Cheese before” would derail almost everyone.

Western Manuscript 7747, Mrs Frances Ranson. Wellcome Images No.L0031621.

Western Manuscript 7747, Mrs Frances Ranson. Wellcome Images No.L0031621.


Having made your cheese, some would say that this is all you need – well, that plus some crackers or wine to accompany it. The many recipes that you can make using cheese, however, also occur in our holdings. A quick search of the archive catalogue reveals several recipes for cheesecake. A modern recipe for this tends to involve one buying commercially-produced curd cheese but of course these recipes date from a time when that basic ingredient was also something that you would have to make yourself, so the process begins right back at the milk stage. This version of the recipe comes from a book compiled by the Gibson family (MS.311, complete digitised facsimile here) in the seventeenth century:


Take 5 quarts of new milk and one of creame, sett it to sam [ = curdle], then whey it [ = drain off the whey] and rub it well that there be no lumps in it, then take almost half a pound of butter melted[,] ten yolks of eggs, mix these all together with a little rose water, then sweeten it to your tast[e], and to fill them, you may put in currents or what spices you please. (MS.311/53)

As mentioned above, these recipes take a lot for granted: only by looking at the next recipe in the book, also for cheesecake, would you know that the final stage is to put this mixture in a dish lined with pastry and then to bake the cake! The seventeeth-century oven, of course, was not predictable: the heat came from a fire and individual ovens would differ radically, even from day to day. We must not, therefore, look to recipes from this period for precise instructions on oven temperature and cooking time – and readers trying these at home should be prepared for many instances of trial and error…

Turning from sweet to savoury, MS.1325 (complete digitised facsimile here), a largely anonymous compilation again from the late seventeenth century, includes a recipe for “an Amlett of Cheese”:

Take Eight Eggs & break – grate a Nutmeg in a little Salt. Beat them well. Take a pound of Parmasan Cheese & grated put to the Eggs. Then take a [penie = penny?] of Butter & put into a ffrying pan & Melt it Then take half the butter & put it to the Eggs & Stirr them well about. Then put in the Eggs into the ffrying pan and ffry it on One Side[;] w[i]th a hott frie Shovell warme your Amlett on th’other Side. Then ffould it up ffoure Square and put it on a Plate. Squeese an Orring over it and Garnish with Orring. (MS.1325/87)

 Broadsheet: 'The physician's receipt'. Wellcome Images No. L0003617.

Broadsheet: ‘The physician’s receipt’.
Wellcome Images No. L0003617.

Cheese, of course, is not to everyone’s taste. We would be unfair if we did not mention this, sad though the present writer finds that concept. A piece of medical ephemera in the collection sums up this dichotomy. The early nineteenth-century humorous broadside “The Physician’s Receipt” describes a how a patient with fever may be treated with soup made from leeks and toasted cheese. If the patient is Welsh, this will cure him – Welshmen, in jokes from at least the sixteenth century onwards, being depicted as loving cheese almost as much as they do leeks. If he is English, it will kill him. Well, de gustibus non est disputandem [there’s no accounting for tastes]: you don’t have to be Welsh to love cheese (although British Cheese Week does include quite a few events in Wales) and you don’t have to come from east of Offa’s Dyke to dislike it. For those of us who find it irresistable, the Wellcome Library’s holdings provide plenty of ways to think about it and while away the time until one gets home and can raid the cheese-board.

Wallace and Gromit footnote fact: according to this interview, the word “Cheese” even shaped Wallace’s face: the way that his mouth projects beyond his cheeks was suggested by the way that actor Peter Sallis said “cheeeese” when he voiced the character.

Images, from top:
1/ Cheese and crackers: from Wellcome Images (image N0028321)
2/ Presses, including a cheese press top left: from the Library’s Iconographic Collections and also visible on Wellcome Images as image V0023780.
3/ Another recipe for cheesecake, this time from the eighteenth century: MS.7747 by Mrs Frances Ranson. Also visible on Wellcome Images (image L0031621).
4/ The Physician’s Receipt: reproduced from Wellcome Images (image L0003617)

Chris Hilton

Chris Hilton

Dr Christopher Hilton was until August 2017 a Senior Archivist at the Wellcome Library.

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