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A brie-f history of Londoners’ obsession with cheese

By Time Out London contributor
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This city’s lust for cheese is no short-term fling. Sirin Kale documents our dark obsession with dairy over the years

You might think you’re the only Londoner who’s ever farted fondue fumes under the sheets after a late-night cheese binge, but actually there’s a solid historical precedent for your gluttony. You’re just the latest in a long line of Londoners to have a near-pornographic obsession with the yellow stuff. Take the man sitting opposite you on the tube, his phone is probably full of cheese smut! And if iPhones had been invented in the 1600s, you can bet Samuel Pepys would have had a caerphilly curated collection of curdled erotica on there. Yes sir! As you’re about to learn, this city’s always been filthy for cheese...

1666: Buried cheese

Your beloved city is on fire. Flames lick at your door. You only have seconds to preserve the things you truly love. What do you save first? A massive wheel of parmesan, of course. During the Great Fire of London in 1666, famed diarist Samuel Pepys dug a hole in his garden and buried an enormous round of the Italian cheese in it. Historians argue that Pepys was merely safeguarding what was a valuable commodity at the time, but we’d argue he was protecting his dearest possession. After all, friends and lovers come and go but cheese is always there for you.

1677-ish: A cheese killing

Some of you might think the City of London is an edammed, godless place, but it’s an important stop on our cheese history tour. Sandwiched high up on a wall between number 13 Philpot Lane and 23 Eastcheap is London’s tiniest public statue: the Philpot Lane Mice. Legend has it that the tiny statue of two mice battling over a piece of cheese commemorates two construction workers who died in a dispute over a missing lunch while building the nearby Monument (it transpired that mice had eaten it).

1903: Cheese – the movie

Before over-the-top special effects started to grate on us all, cinemagoers could enjoy a simpler kind of film-making. In 1903, the Alhambra Music Hall in Leicester Square – now an Odeon – screened a two-and-a half-minute film, ‘The Cheese Mites’ of insects crawling in a lump of stilton. The audience laughed, they cheered, then went home and really carefully examined their ploughman’s lunch.

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1968: Cheese – the backlash

From 1968 to 1993, one man prowled Oxford Circus with a singular vision: to create a better society by encouraging us to change our diets. His name was Stanley Owen Green, but many people knew him as ‘Protein Man’. Green paced the streets of central London with a placard calling out what he identified as the roots of the problem: ‘Protein: Fish, Meat, Bird, Cheese, Egg’ (plus peas and ‘sitting’). Green’s theory of ‘protein wisdom’ proposed that people would be nicer and less sex-crazed if we all ate less cheese, and he walked the streets of London for 25 years being mocked by the cheese-loving masses to prove it. Obviously Green failed spectacularly in his mission, because cheese is both delicious and erotic, but you can’t blame a man for trying, right?

2016: When cheese goes bad

Not everyone feels calm after a narcotic hit of cheese. And denied their fix, curd junkies can lose it quicker than you can say ‘emmental’. In 2016, a free cheese festival in London descended into chaos amid overcrowding and protesting vegans. Londoners were cheesed off after what organisers described as ‘unprecedented’ numbers turned up at the Evening of Cheese Festival at Borough Market to find there wasn’t enough cheese to go round, plus huge bar queues. Outside, vegan demonstrators waved signs with pictures of cows and the slogan ‘not my mom, not my milk’, cheese-shaming the crowds entering the venue. Don’t feel blue, cheese fans, we’re sure London’s next cheese festival will be much, much feta. 

13 dishes that are too cheesy to handle.

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