Feast and Phrase

Gastronomy in the world of words.

Tag: Cheese


Raclette at Borough Market

London’s Borough Market is a heaven for food lovers, but deciding what to eat is hellishly difficult. During my first visit last weekend, I seemed to loop endlessly around the stalls in a bid to make up my mind.

‘If in doubt, Meriadoc, always follow your nose,’ advises Gandalf in The Fellowship of the Ring. At first this seemed like the worst advice, because my nose wanted to go everywhere at once. Retreating to the free samples of Croatian fig jam and proper virgin olive oil, I realised that one smell had stood out above the rest: the irresistible flame-melted smell of raclette.

Raclette 2Half-wheels of raclette melt away under gas flames.

‘Raclette’ refers to both a cheese and the dish in which it features, hailing from the French and Swiss sides of the Alps – most famously, Switzerland’s Valais region. To make the dish, a wheel of raclette is cut in half, and the flat surface is melted with a fire or grill before being smoothly scraped onto a serving of potatoes, gherkins, and pickled onions. A good sprinkling of black pepper is all that is needed on top before you tuck into a plateful of salty, smoky, gooey goodness.

Raclette 3The melted cheese easily slips onto the plate.

Watching raclette being prepared is utterly mesmerizing. I could have stood for a good while breathing in the atmosphere of melting cheese that surrounded the stall, eyes fixed on the half-wheels as they sizzled away under gas flames. Most satisfying of all is the ease with which the hot cheese slips with the knife onto the plate. ‘Raclette’ comes from the French racler, meaning ‘to scrape’, but this suggests a bit of work is involved. Raclette, on the other hand, is effortless.

Cardamom Roll

Sweden – A Food Journey

This time last week, I was flying back home after an incredible visit to Sweden: two nights in Stockholm followed by a four-night package with The Aurora Zone at Brändön Lodge, Luleå. Exploring city comforts and the silent wilderness, I also got my first taste of Swedish food culture! Here are some of the highlights…

StockholmStockholm in the winter sunshine. All images are mine unless otherwise stated. Feel free to use any, but please credit ‘Feast and Phrase’ with a link to this article.

Stockholm – Day One

The buzzing street of Drottninggatan has all kinds of shops and eateries. I came across the stylish and almost subterranean Il Caffè. Trendy orange or white tables and smart wall graffiti dotted a series of reconverted basement rooms – these seemed to extend endlessly, as if following the ceiling pipes deep into the building.

Il Caffe 2The entrance of Il Caffè.

I wasted no time in getting introduced to the Swedish practice of fika. For the uninitiated outsider, it is a simple ‘coffee break’. For the Swedish people, it is a social gathering with coffee and sweet treats that is as much a national institution as ‘afternoon tea’ once was for the British. However, fika is not limited to the afternoon. Any time can be fika time.

Il CaffeOrange table and robot graffiti. 

Actually, as a non-coffee drinker, I only got partly introduced to fika and probably committed some form of sacrilege by going straight for the assortment of buns and pastries on offer by the till. I chose a kardemummabulle (‘cardamom roll’), enjoying every aromatic mouthful. The classic kanelbulle (‘cinnamon bun’) was also on offer – a delicacy which is so revered that it even has its own national day – visit Sweden on the fourth of October and you can celebrate kanelbullens dag, or ‘Cinnamon Bun Day’.

Cardamom RollA kardemummabulle (‘cardamom roll’), with a kanelbulle (‘cinnamon bun’) in the bottom right.

I instead picked up one of the nöttoppar (‘hazelnut macaroons’) for later. This was so good that I actually returned to buy more on the morning of my flight to Luleå!

Hazelnut macaroonOne of the nöttoppar (‘hazelnut macaroons’).

Stockolm – Day Two

Today brought history and food together, starting off at the Vasa Museum. The almost completely intact Vasa is one of a kind – the only seventeenth-century warship in the world to be preserved in such a state. Built too narrow and tall, it was blown over and sank on its maiden voyage in 1628, only to be found 333 years later.

VasaThe mighty Vasa warship.

The ship had enough space for six weeks of provisions, which included bread, meat, peas, fish, and of course, beer. Söfring Hansson, captain of the Vasa, also worked as a merchant and was apparently responsible for providing the navy yard with hops. In terms of overall provisions per man, the monthly ration for members of Sweden’s fleet was as follows:

Ship’s ale: 1/2 barrel = 63 litres
Bread: 1/2 barrel
Meat and dried fish: 1 ‘lispund’ = 8.5 kg
Dried peas: 1/2 ‘fjärding’ = 16.2 litres

From the provisioning plans for soldiers of the fleet, 1628. Part of the museum exhibition.

At a time when water was not safe to drink, beer was essential. Hot ale was a remedy for ague or fever, while scurvy – the bane of all sailors during this age – was cured with lemons. (Scurvy is most famously associated with pirates, but has affected everyone from Ancient Egyptians to Portuguese explorers. For an overview of the disease and historical accounts, check out this scurvy history.)

I left the Vasa for Historiska, the ‘Swedish History Museum’. This bright and modern museum has plenty of interesting things to see, including extensive exhibitions on the Vikings and the development of Swedish culture. The on-site café was excellent value for money – so I felt, given that Sweden is definitely on the costly side. There were filling lunch options from 75 – 90 SEK, including a salad bar and tea and coffee, which are often extra in other places. On top of that, the museum was free!

HistoriskaThe excellent Historiska Museum café. 

I finished the day with the Nobel Museum, which has a small section on the Nobel Banquet. The shop had recipe books drawing on the lavish menus that have been enjoyed by prize-winners over the years. You can see the menus for each year on the official website.

Nobel BanquetSome of the Nobel Banquet books on sale.

Brändön Lodge

Imagine a grand pine cabin nestled in the snow with 15 smaller cabins by its side, all looking out over a stretch of frozen sea – the ice around a metre thick, making it perfect for snowmobiles and other vehicles to drive over. This is Brändön Lodge, standing next to the Bay of Bothnia: all part of the Luleå Archipelago, which contains some 1,300 islands.

Brändön Lodge Brändön Lodge on the left, with a ‘lavvu’ or traditional tent on the right.

The unbelievable silence of the location and its Narniaesque beauty, combined with wonderful hosting by owner Göran Widén and his helpful staff, made for an outstanding experience. Added to that was a set of mouth-watering buffet meals where I became further acquainted with Swedish gastronomy.

Frozen SeaLooking out over the frozen sea.

I’m not much of a jam person, but the presence of two very unconventional varieties at breakfast (and the possibility of combining them with pancakes or waffles) meant some exceptions were made! The first was a golden jam made out of cloudberries, which look a bit like orangey-yellow raspberries; eaten throughout Sweden, they often grow in areas of boggy land.

CloudberriesUnfortunately, I didn’t take any pictures of the jams, so photos of the berries from online will have to do. Image from Flickr user Staffan Wingren.

A member of staff told me that each person has their own hidden cloudberry-picking spot, adding with a Bond-like smile that ‘if I told you, I would have to kill you’. A matter of national security! The second jam, which was pleasantly tangy in taste, was made out of sea buckthorn berries, which are bright orange in colour.

Sea BuckthornThe sea buckthorn plant. Image from Flickr user S. Rae.

A third berry which would have been impossible not to encounter during my trip was the lingonberry – a rich red berry which can be found in a host of Swedish dishes, accompanying everything from reindeer meat to desserts. I was also served lingonberry juice on several occasions. A cupful of hot lingonberry juice after adventuring over the snow is like a warming shot of sugary energy.

LingonberriesThe lingonberry plant. Image from Flickr user andreashallgren.

Featured in my itinerary was a hovercraft ride over the sea ice. My guide Andreas pointed out sea eagles feeding on the surface and drove us to the edge of the ice road which keeps islands connected in the winter. Returning to Brändön, we sat by the fire in a traditional tent or lavvu next to the lodge and indulged in coffee and a kanelbulle (or in my case, just the kanelbulle!).

HovercraftThe ‘Flying Condor’ hovercraft.

Another activity was a session of winter skills, where a group of us snowshoed into a nearby forest, following animal tracks and looking for wild dens. Stopping off, we were taught how to start a small fire with knives and flint. We then boiled up fresh pine-leaf tea using snow and a few cuttings from the surrounding trees. It seems that the younger plants have the best flavour, but my concoction tasted largely like boiled water, so I probably didn’t add enough. I suppose that’s what happens when you get a ‘tea-totaller’ to make tea…

FirePine-leaf tea boiling away!

Our guide Thomas pulled out a wooden cup which looked like a little hemisphere with a handle. This, he informed us, was a kåsa: a traditional drinking vessel made by Sweden’s indigenous Sami people, shaped out of a burl, or unusual tree growth. It was then I realised that we had been drinking out of black plastic versions of the same thing.

After our training in the forest, we made our way to the lavvu, where a large metal pan known as a muurikka had been moved over the central fire. Sitting back, we watched as Thomas rustled up vegetables in a creamy sauce. The majority of the group had these with suovas, (‘salty, smoked reindeer meat’), while I ate them with what I believe were cheese-filled rårakor – typical Swedish potato cakes. Embracing my newly developed taste-buds, I made sure to put a good dollop of lingonberry jam on the side!

Thomas CookingThomas gets to work cooking on the muurikka.

One particular delicacy which I didn’t have the chance to try on this holiday was kaffeost, or ‘coffee-cheese’. Baked from unpasteurized milk, the cheese has a consistency a bit like mozzarella and is added to coffee in little cubes. It has a famously squeaky texture between the teeth, and can also be eaten in slices with cloudberry jam. A shame to miss out, but a welcome addition to the long list of reasons for heading back in the future. Who knows? I might even be drinking coffee by then…


Cheesy, Corny, Cringey Biscuit

‘Cheesy’: a word with associations from the embarrassing to the unmistakeably delicious. The Oxford English Dictionary gives four main definitions, with three ‘draft additions’ showcasing more recent developments in meaning. It can be used in the first sense for something ‘abounding in cheese’ (think fondue and Quattro Formaggi) or being ‘of the nature of cheese’ (which has quite a philosophical ring to it). What is ‘the nature of cheese’? Discuss. On the subject, it is worth highlighting that the English ‘cheese’ comes from the Latin for the foodstuff, caseus.

Nature of CheeseMusing on ‘the nature of cheese’. Cheesily edited together using a picture by Flickr user m01229 of Auguste Rodin’s ‘The Thinker’ and an image of a cheese plate by photographer Jon Sullivan.

The second sense is medical, describing a pathological condition with the appearance or consistency of cheese, for example:

‘Cheesy plugs often occlude the bronchial tubes.’

Austin Flint, A treatise on the principles and practice of medicine (1881).

This may be hard to take seriously given the food-related significance of the term, which makes the quotation almost sound like the consequence of talking with your mouth full while eating mozzarella bites. Medical terminology now replaces ‘cheesy’ with ‘caseous’; a clear reflection of the Latin caseus.

One such phrase is ‘caseous necrosis’, also known as ‘caseous degeneration’, which the American Heritage Medical Dictionary defines as ‘a type of tissue death in which all cellular outline is lost and tissue appears crumbly and cheeselike, usually seen in tuberculosis’. That is definitely more squirm-inducing than savoury.

Cheese Fondue It is a truth universally acknowledged, that an image of fondue is considerably less distressing than one of caseous necrosis. Courtesy of Flickr user Pedro Cerqueira.

The modern colloquial use of ‘cheesy’, indicating something overdone or too nostalgic which may still be somewhat likeable – such as ‘cheesy music’ or ‘cheesy jokes’ –  is listed as a draft addition. It seems to have developed from the third definition, which moves away from food entirely. Current in the mid-1800s, this slang version of the word conveyed something ‘fine or showy’:

‘To see him at Tattersall’s sucking his cane, his cheesy hat well down on his nose.’

Robert Smith Surtees, Ask mamma; or, The richest commoner in England (1858).

A different ‘cheese’ was responsible for this – not from the Latin caseus, but from the Persian and Urdu cheez, or ‘thing’. Picked up during the British occupation of the Indian subcontinent, it was spelt in the same fashion as the edible variety and came to signify ‘a notable thing’. From the 1900s onwards, it denoted ‘wealth’ or ‘fame’ – this was the original sense of ‘the big cheese’:

‘Del had crawled from some Tenth Avenue basement like a lean rat and had bitten his way into the Big Cheese… He had danced his way into..fame in sixteen minutes.’

O. Henry, ‘The Unprofitable Servant’ (1910).

Mammoth CheeseA modern replica of the 22,000 pound (9979 kg) ‘Mammoth Cheese’  which was originally produced in Perth (Ontario, Canada) and displayed at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893. Photo uploaded by Wikimapia user lanarkcounty.

According to The Phrase Finder, the expression may have taken on its modern meaning of ‘the most important individual’ through the influence of giant wheels of cheese, or ‘big cheeses’. These were created as promotional products and cut for the public by well-known figures like politicians. As Douglas Harper of the Online Etymology Dictionary points out, to ‘cut a big cheese’ was another way of saying to ‘look important’.

The ‘fine or showy’ sense gradually altered as these idioms were applied in an increasingly mocking manner, hence the fourth definition: ‘Inferior, second-rate, cheap and nasty’. It can be tricky to differentiate between this and the prevailing colloquialism ‘cheesy’ which developed from it, an early written record of which occurs in the script of a film from the Second World War:

‘Of all the cheezy [sic] songs I ever heard..that one certainly takes the crackers.’

Hail the Conquering Hero, directed by Preston Sturges (1943).

Mozzarella and Tomato BitesTomato and mozzarella bites. Not for inhalation. From the ProFlowers blog; uploaded on Flickr.

Not to ignore another gastronomical idiom, ‘takes the crackers’ looks to be an American variation on ‘taking the biscuit’, used to imply that something causes displeasure or astonishment, for instance: ‘You ate all my mozzarella bites? That really takes the biscuit.’ Both seem to have arisen from ‘taking the cake’, which has more of a sense of superiority or ‘carrying off honours’, as well as showing surprise.

That has its origins in the ‘cake walk’ contests held by African American communities of the southern states between the late 1800s and early 1900s. Participants would display their style; cakes were given to the victors. There is evidence that a similar phrase was used in Ancient Greece in reference to winning, but none to suggest that this had any influence on the English. A ‘cakewalk’ can now mean ‘something easy’, much like ‘a walk in the park’.

1896 Cake-walk PosterAn 1896 cake walk advertisement. From the Library of Congress.

Researching this reminded me of when a friend in school once asked if I had ever heard the expression ‘takes the cringey biscuit’. I hadn’t then, and a Google now doesn’t bring up any relevant results. In the spirit of wordsmithery, as with my previous ‘lemonage’ attempt, I suggest adopting it:

‘Take the cringey biscuit’: To be cringe-inducingly bad.

e.g. ‘Sing?! That would take the cringey biscuit.’

e.g. ‘Your continued mention of mozzarella bites takes all the cringey biscuits.’

Synonymous to some extent with ‘cringey’ and ‘cheesy’ is ‘corny’. This was initially used in the 1930s with regards to music played in a rustic or ‘corn-fed’ style, which was seen as outdated. Aside from the immediate sense of ‘relating to corn’, there are some older, obscure definitions which are not associated with the crop. Samuel Johnson’s 1755 Dictionary of the English Language gives ‘strong or hard like horn’, coming from the Latin for horn, cornu.

‘Corns’ on the skin are from the same word; ‘corny’ in the 18th and 19th centuries carried the meaning of ‘having corns on the feet’ or ‘pertaining to corns’. Examples from the 1800s show that ‘corny’ and ‘corned’ could also mean ‘drunk’, while ‘corny-faced’ from 1699 describes a person who has a very ‘Red or Blue pimpled Phiz’, or countenance. Whether or not that is caused by drink is another question.

Corny in Johnson's Dictionary 1785The entry for ‘corny’ in a 1785 printing of Johnson’s Dictionary. Located using Internet Archive.

A spread of other food-linked adjectives relate to ‘cheesy’ and ‘corny’. ‘Schmaltzy’ is queasily fitting for making known that something is sickeningly sentimental, deriving from the German and Yiddish for edible bird fat. Like ‘corn’, ‘schmaltz’ was also applied to music:

Schmaltz (cf. the German schmalz, meaning grease) is a derogatory term used to describe straight jazz.’

Vanity Fair (New York), November 71/2 (1935).

‘Syrupy’ and ‘treacly’ perform much the same role. Together with ‘schmaltzy’, they are logical choices for indicating excessiveness due to the excessive qualities of their respective foods. This is less the case with the negative ‘cheesy’ and ‘corny’ – for the vast majority of people, there is nothing obviously disagreeable about cheese and corn. ‘Cheesy’ is employed so frequently in connection to commonplace things that cheez and its indication of status is hardly apparent. Likewise, the social judgement on country culture in ‘corny’ is easily overlooked.

Lyle's Treacle and SyrupBritish classics: Lyle’s Black Treacle and Golden Syrup. The design for Golden Syrup has remained virtually the same since 1885, winning it the Guinness World Record for ‘Oldest branding (packaging)’ in 2006. Image uploaded by Flickr user Richard Rutter.

Exploring etymologies not only brings this to light; it also makes it all the more tempting to imagine how the words will be utilized in the future. Could ‘cheesy’ return to being specifically positive? Perhaps ‘corny’ and ‘schmaltzy’ might see a reversal. Will ‘cringey biscuit’ ever establish itself? Were it ever to do so – well, that would certainly take the cake.

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