Oxford Companion to Cheese (edited by Catherine Donnelly), 2016; Oxford Companion to Food 3rd edition (Alan Davidson, edited by Tom Jaine), 2014; Oxford Companion to Wine 4th edition (edited by Jancis Robinson & Julia Harding), 2015.
The Oxford Companion to Wine is one of my favorite wine reference books. Interesting and authoritative, it balances breadth and depth very well indeed. A great source if you need to look something up and a pleasure to browse, too. I am a big fan.
Nobody can live on wine alone (although I have a few friends who might have tried) and apparently Oxford cannot live by wine reference books alone, either. They publish a whole range of reference volumes including Oxford Companions to both food and cheese.
Wine, food, and cheese? I could not resist the opportunity to compare and contrast when a copy of the new Oxford Companion to Cheese arrived at Wine Economist world headquarters at about the same time that a colleague offered me a copy of the older second edition of the Oxford Companion to Food he recently received as a gift from his OUP editor. How do they stack up?
Pizza, Poutine and Venezuelan Beaver Cheese
I found all three of the books interesting and useful, but the food volume suffered a little by the comparison, which I now realize was unfair. Food is such a huge topic — where does it begin and end? It is impossible to get the breadth/depth balance on such a huge topic adjusted to everyone’s satisfaction. Although it is a terrific reference, I often found myself wanting more detail. But maybe that’s what the internet is for!
The cheese volume, on the other hand, was a perfect fit for me. Lots of great detail about cheese varieties, processes, cultures, issues, history and so on. Famous cheesemakers are profiled, notable cheese shops reviewed, and cheesy foods (pizza, poutine) analyzed.
There is even room for a bit of fun as the entry for Monty Python makes clear. Yes, you are correct, it is the famous Cheese Shop sketch (see below), which mentions 41 different actual cheese varieties and one fake one (Venezuelan beaver cheese).
What About the Wine?
Browsing both books was fun, but my focus was on wine. Wine has obvious connections to food and cheese — how would the authors and editors approach the subject? The “wine” entry in the food volume, located between “wild rice” and “winged bean,” was almost shockingly brief. Wine is treated here as an ingredient in cooking, not as food itself or part of a shared cultural experience. How disappointing.
Wine does not even appear in the index, which is intentionally “noncomprehensive” and “highly selective” in my older edition.
Wine enthusiasts will find more to like in the cheese volume, where a very informative entry on “wine pairing” is wedged between “Williams, Jesse” (a farmer and cheesemaker who opened the first American cheese factory in Rome, NY in 1851) and “Winnimere” (a raw cow’s milk cheese made by Jasper Hill Creamery in Greensboro Bend, Vermont). “See also Beer Pairing,” we are advised. Good idea.
The cheese volume has a comprehensive index and so it is easy to find information about wine as a component in the cheesemaking process (used to color the cheese, for example, or to wash the rinds of some varieties). Wine also appears in a number of the entries for particular cheese varieties, generally in the form of cheese-wine pairing recommendations. This is very useful, but not all the entry authors find wine pairing to be important. The otherwise comprehensive entry on Stilton, for example, fails to mention its potential pairing with 20-year old Tawny Port. What a pity!
The Wine Perspective
My examination of the food and cheese companion volumes made me curious about how the wine companion deals with culinary connections. A quick glance at the index revealed … that there is no index. I searched the online version of the book that is available to subscribers to Jancis Robinson’s website and found 15 mentions of “cheese.” The entry on wine-food pairing was very good, on a par with the wine pairing entry in the cheese book.
All three of the Oxford Companions are useful and interesting additions to your bookshelf. The wine companion is essential for wine lovers and, having spent some time with it, I think the Oxford Companion to Cheese is a “must-have” volume, too, especially for travelers who want to explore local food, wine and cheese. Don’t leave home without checking out the wine and cheese cultures you will encounter on the road!
But you don’t have to get out of town to enjoy these books. Global markets increasing make a wide world of wine available to us and this is also true of cheese. Upscale supermarkets offer dozens, sometimes hundreds, of cheeses.
The Oxford Companions can help open the door to fuller enjoyment of the wines and cheeses that lie waiting on our doorsteps. Enjoy. (And enjoy The Cheese Shop sketch, too!)