Blessed are the cheesemakers: University of Leeds acquires oldest surviving book about British cheese | Books

The earliest surviving book about British cheese has been acquired by the University of Leeds library’s special collections and published online.

“A pamflyt compiled of Cheese, contayninge the differences, nature, qualities, and goodnes” was previously unknown and thought to be unpublished. The 112-page vellum-bound manuscript was handwritten in the 1580s, covering all aspects of cheesemaking from ancient to Tudor times, describing the production of many different English and Welsh cheeses and their merits.

The manuscript also pronounces “the vertues of cheese used as a medicine”. Medical advice best left in the 16th century includes using the milk of a dog to “cause a woman to be delivered of her childe before tyme” – although the author’s observation that “a surfyte of cheese dose bringe payne” certainly holds true.

Food historian Peter Brears thinks the book “is probably the first comprehensive academic study of a single foodstuff to be written in the English language.”

“I’ve really never seen anything like it,” he said. “Although cheese has formed part of the human diet since the introduction of farming in the prehistoric periods, there is little evidence of its character and places of production in medieval Britain except for entries for anonymous cheeses in household accounts.”

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Jay Rayner, the Observer’s restaurant critic and a University of Leeds alumnus, called the university’s acquisition “thrilling”. The rare document takes us “right back to the origins of cheesemaking in the UK, in itself part of the very weft and weave of our food culture”, he added.

The identity of the book’s author is uncertain, but notes on the text show that it was circulated among courtiers and politicians: a note on the flyleaf from Clement Fisher, MP for Tamworth, for example, asks for the book to be returned to him when it has been “perused” while Walter Bayley, whose name appears at the end of the text, was regius professor of medicine at Oxford and physician to Elizabeth I.

Edward Willoughby is another name that appears on the text, and Brears thinks he was likely to have been the author. Willoughby came from a family of parliamentarians and was from Bore Place, Kent. “The mention of Kingsnorth, a village near Ashford in Kent, as a cheesemaking centre in a county otherwise unrecognised for its cheeses, demonstrates a degree of local knowledge that appears to confirm Edward Willoughby as the author,” the historian said.

Following an open auction earlier this year, the manuscript was acquired by the University of Leeds with the support of a grant from Friends of the National Libraries. It will join the cookery collection at the University of Leeds library, which also contains the libraries of the food writer and journalist Michael Bateman, and the French-British cookery teacher Gisele Mardon.

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