Dickens is as famous for his feasts as his tirades against poverty. But look at all his works, and you get a feeling cheese hardly ranked as one of the great gourmet joys of Victorian life.
There are plenty of references to cheese, mainly with beer and bread. But not a single specific reference to Cheddar, Wensleydale, Lancashire or Blue Vinny.
Cheshire gets seven references in his complete works, Stilton gets five, Gloucester three, another three for Glo’ster – and cheese mites rack up two. On the other hand, Dutch cheese gets 12, and even parmesan manages one.
Stilton in particular gets very poor use: in Household Words: Gone to the Dogs, he writes, “Within a year, the house he had renewed became the worst of all; the stucco decomposing like a Stilton cheese, and the ornamented parapet coming down in fragments like the sugar of a broken twelth cake.”
In Dombey and Son, “…the Major, with his complexion like a Stilton cheese, and his eyes like a prawn’s.”
It seems cheese-keeping was not a great skill in his day.
In Pictures from Italy he says of Lyons, “A number of houses at odds with one another and grotesquely out of the perpendicular like rotten pre-Adamite cheeses cut into fantastic shapes and full of mites.”
And later in the same article, “The houses, high and vast, dirty to excess, rotten as old cheeses, and as thickly peopled.”
And in acampaigning pice of journalism about poverty, On Duty with Inspector Field, he reports, “ Men and women, children, for the most part naked, heaped upon the floor like maggots in cheese!”
Maybe no one knew how to make good cheese? In Great Expectations Dickens drops in at Nab-end and finds “her aunt was upstairs, inspecting the summer’s make of cheeses.” How long was it till they realised hot air rises?
Perhaps poor cheese-keeping also explains the number of references to toasting cheese. In The Pickwick Papers he writes, “The cheese was simmering and browning away, most delightfully, in a little Dutch oven before the fire.”
In Oliver Twist Mr Bumbles rant against the poor: “Coals! What would he do with coals? Toast his cheese with ’em and then come back for more. That’s the way with these people.”
And in A Tale of two Cities he describes the training of a clerk at Tellson House, “They kept him in a dark place, like a cheese, until he had the full Tellson flavour and blue mould upon him.”
Dutch cheese may have the most mentions, but probably wishes it had not.
In Barnaby Rudge an apprentice complains to Mr Tappertit, “he calls his ‘prentice idle dog and stops his beer unless he works to his liking. He gives Dutch cheese too, eating Cheshire, sir, himself.”
In The Lazy Tour of Two Idle Apprentices he describes, “a bandy vagabond, with a head like a Dutch cheese.”
In Our Mutual Friend he notes mournfully, “Treats being rare in the Wilfer household, where a monotonous appearance of Dutch-cheese at ten o’clock in the evening had been rather frequently commented on by the dimpled shoulders of Miss Bella. Indeed, the modest Dutchman himself seemed conscious of his want of variety, and generally came before the family in state of apologetic perspiration.”
But he could never let go of cheese. In a speech in 1854 he conjures up the audience’s image of their best hotels. “our favourite hotel wherever it was _ its beds, its stables, its vast amount of posting, its excellent cheese, its head waiter, its capital dishes, its pigeon-pies, or its 1820 port.”
And championing the eateries in London’s business quarter: “the houses which were famous for “fine old cheese,” baked potatoes,”, “mutton or pork pies,” “sheep’s trotters,” or “pig faces,” were mostly found, or, at least, were at their best, in the “City.”
And in an 1854 attack on space-filling bits of hackery, It Is Not Generally Known, referred surreally to “the constant sending of innumerable loyal presents, principally cats and cheeses, to Buckingham palace.”
For any French readers, just bear in mind Jules Verne, writing around the same time mentions cheese only nine times in all his works. Neither brie, camembert nor Comte gets a mention. Cheshire cheese gets one (Around the World in 80 Days) and Dutch cheese likewise (Off on a Comet).
Could it be cheese has improved since those days?