Rebecca Davis is appalled to discover that the world's full of cheese haters
I had dinner at an Italian restaurant with someone who took an inordinately long time to order his meal, quizzing the waiter relentlessly on various aspects of the available dishes. I was so bored I dozed off, but instantly regained consciousness when he completed his interrogation and turned to me to explain brightly: "I hate cheese."
I stared at him, wondering if I had misheard. I had not. "It's disgusting," he elaborated casually. "When you get those strings of melted cheese on a pizza? Urrrrrggghhhhhh!" He mimed vomiting.
I immediately contemplated feigning a swoon, like a heroine in a Victorian novel, in order to leave. Anyone who hates cheese cannot be trusted, I reasoned. The evening would start like this, with chat of his careless disdain for mozzarella, and end with me chained in his dungeon.
But subsequent research revealed that my companion is not alone. In October 2016, French researchers determined that cheese is the food most likely to trigger a serious aversion, ahead of meat or fish. They called their paper "The Neural Bases of Disgust for Cheese", though they should really have titled it "Psychopaths Move Among Us".
A proper hatred of cheese is termed "turophobia". The Daily Mail profiled a turophobe a few years ago, under the headline "She must brie terrified: student reveals chronic cheese phobia so bad she cries when she passes supermarket counter". Rather cruelly, the tabloid had made 22-year-old Melissa North pose with a plate of garish cheeses shoved in her face. She looked quite unhappy.
The article recorded that while at school, North's "friends" had taken advantage of her phobia in order to throw some cream cheese at her. High jinks for them; nervous breakdown for her. North also reported that her boyfriend liked to chase her around the house with a block of cheese in his hand. "I just have to lock myself in the bathroom until he gets bored," she said sadly.
There's even a website for cheese-haters. It warns: "If you are on this website, but like cheese, then get lost and never return to this website because if you like cheese, then you SUCK!! LIKE CHEESE."
Clearly not everyone has taken this stern instruction to heart, because one of the website's first comments reads: "YOU SUCK FOR SAYING CHEESE SUCKS! IT DOESN'T, AND YOU'RE ALL LOSERS AND LIARS."
I tend to agree. In fairness, though, when you start thinking about it carefully, cheese can indeed seem disgusting. That is why I do not recommend thinking about it carefully. Perhaps we can restrict ourselves to James Joyce's unflattering yet accurate description, "the corpse of milk", and leave it at that.
When you start thinking about it carefully, cheese can indeed seem disgusting. That is why I do not recommend thinking about it carefully
If hating cheese seems somehow unnatural, that's because it is. We've been eating cheese since around 7000 BC, guzzling those salty rinds as fast as we could make them. To be accurate, there weren't technically any salty rinds at that point: it's suggested that early Neolithic cheeses were a bit like ricotta.
Homo sapiens didn't take long to wise up to the almighty power of cheese. It's in the Bible. When Abraham settles in Canaan and receives an unexpected visit from God and two angels, he needs to push the boat out, hospitality-wise. The solution? Cheese, obviously. Cheese finds a place in the Qur'an and is mentioned in the holy Hindu Vedic texts of 1500 BC, offered to the gods in sacred rituals. In the Hittite empire, around the same time, it was believed that the souls of the dead could briefly be lured out of the underworld via cheese.
If you find it implausible that someone could be stirred from eternal rest by the prospect of some decent cheese, talk to a Russian. Western cheese has been banned from Russia since 2014, as part of strongman Vladimir Putin's retaliation against sanctions. Other foods have been outlawed too, but it is cheese that has become the rallying point for Russian dissidents. This might be because Russian cheese is apparently a bit like Plasticine.
As a result of the ban, reports abound of Russians frantically stuffing their pockets with cheese at international airports. Cheese has taken on the status in Russia of Class-A drugs in other countries. The Telegraph reported last year that there now exists in Moscow "an alleyway in an upmarket area of the city with hand-drawn pictures of different cheeses with phone number of 'suppliers' next to each one".
Russian television news broadcasts regularly show footage of wheels of Dutch gouda being crushed at the airport, in the same way that the Thai government displays its border-control heroin hauls as examples to others.
If Putin falls, we should at least partially credit the revolutionary force of cheese. Then again, cheese is no angel in human history. Paul Kindstedt's Cheese and Culture: A History of Cheese and its Place in Western Civilisation, points out that colonists in New England relied on slaves to make cheese. Cheese was also sent to the West Indies in exchange for molasses. Molasses was used to make rum, and rum was used to buy slaves. Shame on you, cheese.
On home turf, there is little evidence that cheese helped prop up apartheid, but apartheid did condemn our cheese products to decades of mediocrity. There was no scope for innovation within South African cheesemaking until the late 1980s, because prices were regulated by the national dairy board.
Perhaps the lack of choice contributed to establishing a fairly unadventurous palate when it comes to cheese. With 82,000 metric tons of cheese produced in South Africa annually, 51% of that is made up of cheddar and gouda. It's only in recent years that we've started living a little.
Over a century ago, British writer GK Chesterton lamented the absence of cheese in literature. "Poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese," wrote Chesterton, pointing out that this was strange given what a "strong word" cheese is, and also that it rhymes with "breeze" and "seas". Were Chesterton alive today, I'd like to think he'd be tickled by an internet parody of the Eurhythmics' song Sweet Dreams.
"Sweet dreams are made of cheese. Who am I to diss a Brie?"