Monday, February 10, 2014

That's So Cheesy!

If I read the word cheesy quickly, it looks like chessy to me, though chessy isn't a word (but see this about words that supposedly aren't words).  I usually want to spell cheesy with an e before the y (it is an accepted spelling, especially if you intend the "inferior, cheap" meaning), but I refrained here so that I had a reason to include the link to words that supposedly aren't words.

Red Leicester "Sparkenhoe" http://bit.ly/1lsg1bD
Enough with the cheesiness.  I bought some Red Leicester cheese today.  One doesn't see it very often here in the States, so it was a pleasant surprise.  It got me thinking about cheese names.  Most traditional cheese names refer to the area or region where each was initially produced. Note that I say initially, because today cheeses that originated in specific places are often made worldwide, and some of them retain the original name.  An example is Cheddar.  This cheese originated near the village of Cheddar in the county of Somerset, in the southwest of England.  There are written records of it dating back 800 years!  Apparently there are caves near Cheddar that offer the perfect environment for ageing cheese.  At one time Cheddar cheese had to be made within 30 miles of Wells Cathedral, about seven miles from Cheddar, in order to be called Cheddar.  Today there is an EU Protected Designation of Origin that requires "West Country Farmhouse Cheddar" to be made on a farm in one of the four counties in the far southwest of England: Devon, Cornwall, Dorset, or Somerset. It must also be made using traditional techniques specific to Cheddar cheese.  One can these days find such cheeses here in the States (I particularly like Montgomery Cheddar), offering a welcome respite from most mass produced American Cheddars, which may just lose their appeal once you try a true English Cheddar.

By the way, the place name Cheddar is thought to come from Old English ceodor "ravine," referring to
the eponymous gorge near the village, Cheddar Gorge.  Thus, Cheddar Gorge is one of those names that repeats itself, etymologically, for it means "gorge gorge".  Such place names are characterized as being tautological, and there is even a list of tautological place names available from Wikipedia.  (Cheddar Gorge is currently absent from the list - feel free to add it!)

Montgomery Cheddar - http://bit.ly/1nr2vV2
A note on capitalizing (or not) cheese names:  the standard seems to be that if the name refers to a geographical name that is normally capitalized, the cheese name should also be capitalized.  Thus, even though in American writing cheddar is often not capitalized, I am capitalizing it here.

Let's get back to that Red Leicester. (I was torn between capitalizing or not capitalizing red here.  Since Leicester is capitalized as it is a place name, I am capitalizing red, as well.).  It used to be known as Leicestershire cheese.  However, once people noticed that high-quality cheeses made with rich summer milk with added cream tended to be orange in color, due to the high carotene content from the grass (Double Gloucester cheese is an example), that color became desirable in cheese. When annatto coloring became available in the 15th century, makers of Leicestershire cheese began adding annatto to their cheese to achieve that orange shade without having to use as much of the rich milk and cream  (the Day-Glo orange color of many American Cheddars is a vestige of that).  By the mid-18th century, the production of this cheese became regulated, and it came to be known as Leicester cheese.  During World War II rationing, cheese production was standardized across the country and colors were no longer added, so cheese made in the Leicester area was known as White Leicester.  Once the cheese industry recovered from the war, and annatto was again added to Leicester cheese, it came to be known as Red Leicester to distinguish it from the run-of-the-mill White Leicester.

Leicester contains the familiar -cester element which derives from Old English ceaster and means, etymologically, "walled town".  Lei- comes ultimately, per the Oxford Names Companion, from Ligore, which is thought to refer to a specific tribe or group of people, but beyond that the word's origin is not known.  While we're at it, how about annatto?  The dye comes from the pulp that surrounds the seeds of the achiote tree, Bixa orellana.  No one seems to know where the word annatto comes from, though the OED guesses that it is from a native Central American language, as the plant is indigenous to that region.

Read more about perry: http://bit.ly/1od7H1S
How about a couple of unusual or interesting cheeses?  One of my favorite cheese names is stinking bishop.  It is so named because its rind is washed in perry (fermented pear juice) made from the juice of the stinking bishop pear.  Wikipedia says that the pear did not have a bad odor, but it was named after its breeder, Mr. Bishop, and Mr. Bishop was apparently not the most pleasant person, hence "stinking." This cheese, made by only one producer, gained fame after it was mentioned in the animated film Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit.  Now for unusual: pule cheese.  This is purportedly cheese made from Balkan donkey's milk.  This makes it the most expensive cheese in the world.  It hails from Serbia, where pule is Serbian for "foal".

Even though the word perry used above is not a cheese name, it is an interesting word, nonetheless.  It is not heard much in the U.S. in the sense "pear cider" - we often say "pear cider."  However, it is a relatively old word, dating back to Middle English (14th century) and derives ultimately from Latin pirum "pear".  Now, how about a glass of perry and some nice Blue Stilton?  (Stilton is named after the town in Cambridgeshire in which it was first sold.)
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