Book Review: 'The Book Of Cheese'

May 15, 2018

“More than any other food, cheese has personality,” writes Liz Thorpe in her gorgeous, yummy, almost overwhelming treatise, The Book of Cheese: The Essential Guide to Discovering Cheeses You’ll Love. “Punk cheeses, boring cheeses, comfort cheeses” and her own favorites, based on flavor, texture, scent and surprise, but Thorpe urges everyone to follow his or her own nose and taste buds. Her theme is: take a chance, discover something new. Start with a cheese you like—maybe one you remember from your childhood—and then consider it as a “gateway” cheese,  a “jumping off point” to try something like it but beyond on a spectrum that goes from “approachable” to “intense,” to maybe even “stinky.”

Thorpe, who grew up in a Connecticut town where pizza reigned supreme, believes that cheese is “an everyday eating food,” especially with others. She serves various kinds of cow, goat and sheep cheeses to friends and family, including her young daughters and offers suggestions about “pairing” various cheeses with vegetables, fruit, wine and beer. More often than not cheese may wind up being her whole dinner.

This is a handsome and challenging book, a “road map,” the author says, for exploring little known or unknown cheeses, foreign and domestic, but mostly domestic. It also has some of the most beautiful food photography you’ll ever see.  

Chapters are given over to six gateway cheeses: mozzarella, havarti, cheddar, brie, parmesan, manchego and what Thorpe calls “misfits”—bizarre or extreme cheeses that include stuff she simply refers to as WTF! You know. Each chapter introduces departure cheeses—some far out, even those Thorpe herself says are not for her, but again, the idea is to learn about these cheeses and try them.

For sure, there are other cheese books out there, including earlier ones by Thorpe, that document her rise from naïve counter girl to innovative manager at Murray’s Cheese in Greenwich Village, to international consultant and teacher. Her Book of Cheese, is a timely book, especially for Americans. For the last 15 years, Thorpe notes, the United States has been moving steadily in developing a sophisticated palette for cheese, in accordance, it should be said, with U.S. requirements that forbid unpasteurized cheese or cheeses not aged at least 60 days.   

But there’s another reason this book is important. Thorpe’s career exemplifies an important point about higher education. A summa cum laude graduate from Yale who majored in Art History and American Studies, she took a wide offering of creative and critical-thinking disciplines. She needed to work after graduation, but after being laid off from a boring dot com job, she was able to pursue her curiosity and love of cheese because she had not restricted herself to a narrow academic discipline. Her broad liberal arts education enabled her to appreciate cheese intellectually, as a subject at the crossroads of sustenance and cultural history. Bon Appétit!