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Still Life With Cheese

Clara Peeters. Still Life with Cheeses, Artichoke, and Cherries. 1625. Courtesy

I don’t know much about cheese, but I know what I like. Crumbly wensleydale. Comté. Provolone. Taleggio. Stilton. Cumin-studded leyden. Sage derby…

I’m taking in the geometry of a cheese showcase in Sydney. The arrangement of semicircles, triangles, squares and rectangles. Blocks from here, and from there – France, Italy, England, the Netherlands. I have a modest and much treasured collection of old geography textbooks and atlases, and as I regard this cheesy cornucopia I’m concocting one of their charts. Printed with an economy of colour and detail: The Global Travels of Cheese.

Tasmanian brie, cheese infused with lemon myrtle, Persian feta, quark from Germany, extra creamy, extra bitey, salt reduced, vegan. The sunny profile of double gloucester. Port-salut from Brittany. Hard pressed, stretched curd and strong cheese. Yellow discs, red-waxed spheres, parsley-speckled, cranberry-layered, washed rind, cave-aged, smoked, soft, blue, goat – not too keen on goat to be honest.

Neighbourhood supermarkets – be they in Sydney, in Amsterdam, or anywhere else for that matter – reveal not only what the locals are eating, but a whole subtext of culinary attitudes. They’re my first port of call in a foreign city. So it’s after investigating the Albert Heijn supermarket on Leidsestraat that I walk to another place I always go whenever I’m in Amsterdam: the Rijksmuseum. Through streets that smell of spilt beer, dope, and that canal-damp common to water cities the world over. Visitors rush to Rembrandt. The gift shop is selling bars of soap disguised as emmental or its budget lookalike, maasdam. But there’s less cheese on the walls than I remember, and as I gaze at the sole ‘cheese painting’ on show I wonder if the abundance of my previous trips is something I’ve imagined.

Tiers of cheese are centre stage in many still lifes from the opening decades of the seventeenth century. Hefty half-wheels anchor Floris Claesz van Dijck’s 1615 painting. Ditto paintings by Floris van Schooten and Clara Peeters that I’ve seen reproduced online and in print. Still lifes from this period typically depict domestic fare, the components of a simple meal, and are known as ontbijtje (breakfast pieces). Bread and cheese, maybe an artichoke or a herring, a tankard of beer. All very egalitarian.

After slim pickings on the cheese-in-art front I turn my attention to the artistry of Amsterdam’s cheese shops with their close-packed shelves and suggested ‘threesomes’ (buy three get a discount). From an array of cheeses labelled ‘farmhouse lunch’ I select a quarter moon of brandnetelkaas, its pale face freckled with foraged nettle.

Standing here surrounded by cheese of all hues and provenance I’m reminded of that famous passage in Le Ventre de Paris (The Belly of Paris) by one of my favourite writers, Émile Zola. The novel is set in Les Halles, the central food market that was demolished in 1971 and replaced by a Westfield mall. About three-quarters of the way into the book Zola orchestrates the contents of Madame Lecoeur’s cheese storeroom into an olfactory symphony.

It was the camembert they could smell. This cheese, with its gamy odour, had overpowered the milder smells of the marolles and the limbourg; its power was remarkable. Every now and then, however, a slight whiff, a flute-like note, came from the parmesan, while the bries came into play with their soft, musty smell, the gentle sound, so to speak, of a damp tambourine. The livarot launched into an overwhelming reprise, and the géromé kept up the symphony with a sustained high note.

Cheese is a cheese is a cheese.

The story goes like this. Cheese is a fermented product created from milk, salt, rennet and a cast of powerful – albeit invisible to us – microbes. With a type such as emmental, cheesewrights depend on a particular bacteria to consume the lactic acid and release carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide bubbles are trapped in the curd and form ‘eyes’. Once upon a time these organisms were introduced to the milk via splinters of hay or grass. Over the past half-century however, as cheesemaking became a more hygiene-regulated procedure, makers found their emmental was failing to produce eyes. This resulted in what’s called a blind cheese, and emmental minus its signature holes is considered substandard.

Cheesewrights. Playwrights. I like those ‘wright’ words for makers and builders of things. Turn out cheese. Shape a play. Overheard conversations on the bus. Snapshots of people briefly encountered. As a playwright I source my ingredients from routine as well as random places. A while ago I accompanied a friend to an upmarket delicatessen in an upmarket district of London. When I asked the specialist cheesemonger, a lanky thirty-something with hair the colour of gravel, if they had any sage derby, he responded with a barely suppressed shudder. ‘It’s flavour-added and we don’t stock that kind of cheese,’ he said, as he ushered us out of the shop. Was he worried the mere mention of a ‘flavour-added’ cheese would pollute his snooty business? Who knows, but one day I’ll put him in a script and get my revenge.

A poet’s hope: to be,
like some valley cheese,
local, but prized elsewhere.

W.H. Auden had been living in the Big Apple for years when he penned that stanza. Nevertheless I reckon the ‘valley cheese’ he had in mind was most likely an English one.

I like the English classics: sage derby, lancashire, stilton, wensleydale. Regional recipes now spread far and wide, e.g. my fridge contains a pack of sage derby from Victoria’s Gippsland. It’s a smooth, pleasantly fragrant cheese, goes well with baked pears and celeriac, but it doesn’t taste like the sage derbies of my English growing-up. Is that the different terroir? Or is it more about the nature of memory? (Can you use ‘terroir’ for cheese, or does it only apply to wine?)

‘That’s it – cheese! We’ll go somewhere where there’s cheese!’ exclaims inventor Wallace in the animated short A Grand Day Out. And off they rocket to the moon, because as everyone knows, the moon is made of cheese. Whenever I buy wensleydale, which I do quite often, I have that line echoing in my head. Cheese features regularly in the Wallace and Gromit films; the cartoon characters’ enthusiasm for wensleydale is credited with boosting sales of the Yorkshire speciality. And they’re in good company. T.S. Eliot dubbed wensleydale the Mozart of cheese. For George Orwell it was outclassed only by stilton.

Although the label ‘Golden Age’ is enough to make any dish sound appetising, Dutch cooking is hardly one of the world’s celebrated cuisines. One food writer lamented at length the terrible influence of the potato on the nation’s culinary arts. So what brought about such food-focused visual art?

According to nineteenth-century French critic Alfred Michiels, it was the weather. A cold, ungenial climate that sent people scurrying indoors fostered the development of Dutch and Flemish still-life painting.

Art historian Julie Berger Hochstrasser gives a rather different explanation:

The genesis of still-life painting as an independent genre coincides in time and place with a key period in the birth of consumer society. In the seventeenth century, the United Provinces of the Netherlands achieved a position of primacy in global trade that brought unprecedented wealth to Holland.

In the hierarchy of painterly subject matter, biblical and mythological scenes were the most prestigious. Until still lifes demoted the Holy Family and replaced them with flowers, fish, and yes, cheese. A mainstay of the agrarian economy and a food that carried no obvious religious meaning.

Was there cheese at the Last Supper? And if there was, what kind of cheese did Jesus and his disciples enjoy? Labneh? Haloumi? Ewes’-milk feta? Maybe Turkish lor – a cheese made from leftover whey that pairs brilliantly with sour cherry jam.

Which brings me to my next question: Who invented cheese?

Without refrigeration milk soon spoils. At some point millennia ago herders worked out how to convert their milk into cheese, a more stable source of nourishment. The cheeses that evolved in various locations – the Mediterranean, the Middle East, Europe and elsewhere – were shaped by the physical and cultural characteristics of their particular environments.

Adding flavourings to cheese is a very old practice. Herbs, peppercorns, spices, even weeds. Sage derby is a semi-hard English cheese with a subtle, slightly grassy flavour. Its green marbling comes from sage, sometimes supplemented with spinach juice, which is added to the curds during the making (rather than the ageing) process. First produced in the seventeenth century and initially only for festive occasions, sage was thought to aid digestion and temper anxiety. There are detailed instructions for making it in the gloriously titled 1728 tome The Country Housewife and Lady’s Director in the Management of a House, and the Delights and Profits of a Farm.

From farmhouse to factory, craft to commerce. On dairy holdings men took care of the outside tasks while wives did the inside labour – chores, children, cheese-making. Knowledge passed down the generations, from mothers to daughters…until around the middle of the nineteenth century when the profit potential of cheese became apparent. Large-scale manufacturing began, and surprise, surprise, it became a male-dominated industry.

Masters of the Golden Age – does that collective noun include women? It should because there were a number of successful female artists in the Low Countries during the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Judith Leyster, Maria Sibylla Merian, Rachel Ruysch, Maria van Oosterwijck, Clara Peeters – and others. Of those painters only Clara Peeters did cheese. As far as I know. Still Life with Cheeses, Artichoke, and Cherries from 1625 is my favourite. As well as cheese (and biscuits), artichokes were one of Clara Peeters’s trademarks. So too, reflected self-portraits that you need a magnifying glass to spot.

Biographical information about Clara Peeters is scarce and somewhat speculative. She may have been born in Antwerp around 1594. Or not. Probably was. In any case, she was one of the pioneers of still-life painting in the Netherlands. In the meticulous detail of her cheeses, I see landscapes. Knife cuts; cracks. A plugged hole left by the taster’s scoop. Darkening edges; tiny blooms of mould. Dutch engineers taming the North Sea and draining the land to turn a soggy backwater into a dairy powerhouse.

It would be easy to assume no one went hungry during this period of plenty. Not so. Substantial sections of the population were living in poverty with a monotonous and wholly inadequate diet.

Twentieth-century artists took a more oblique approach to the art-reality nexus than their predecessors. René Magritte put a framed picture of a wedge of brie under a glass dome and declared: Ceci est un morceau de fromage – ‘this is a piece of cheese’. Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein adopted Swiss cheese as a recurrent motif. Cheese Head was a billboard poster created for a 1978 exhibition, and Jobs… Not Cheese! was a critique of Ronald Reagan’s apocryphal ‘let them eat cheese’ statement. Reagan enacted a program to offload the government’s surplus – and frequently mouldy – processed cheese onto welfare recipients.

Imagine your cheese grater almost two metres high – that’s Mona Hatoum’s Grater Divide from 2002. With the change of scale, an everyday kitchen utensil is recast as something alien. Something sharp and sinister. Then there’s Rodin’s The Kiss rendered life-size in cheddar. Yes, really. It was made for a 2015 competition aimed at raising money for UK museums and galleries.

Cheese is a cheese is a cheese.

And once upon a time it was a mysterious substance. An untrustworthy product, the preserve of dairymaids and cheese-wives, i.e. uneducated women. An unsettling entity within which lurked the stuff of nightmares. So went the thinking of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. In The Cheese and the Worms Carlo Ginzburg digs deep into archival records to give us the worldview of a sixteenth-century miller who believed that the cosmos and its inhabitants were created from rotting cheese. All was chaos ‘thrashed by the water of the sea like foam, and it curdled like a cheese, from which later great multitudes of worms were born’.

Is cheese alive? (Short answer: yes.) An odd question to ask now perhaps, but back then it would have been easy to believe that there was something animate, something otherworldly about cheese. A notion that persisted well into the seventeenth century when polymath Margaret Cavendish wrote in her Observations Upon Experimental Philosophy that ‘such insects, as Maggots, and several sorts of Worms and Flies, and the like, which have no Generator of their own kind, but are bred out of Cheese, Earth and Dung, &c.’

Cheese disappeared after about 1625. Not from the Dutch pantry, but from still-life paintings. Displaced by goods gathered from further afield. Porcelain and pineapples. Tropical birds. Items unfamiliar to European eyes. In 1596 Dutch ships reached the Indonesian archipelago. Shortly thereafter they went west to the Americas. The elaborate, over-the-top still lifes from the later seventeenth century are full of the fruits of empire, and one way to read these paintings is as a kind of map.

From homegrown comforts to the realities of colonialism. The spectre of slavery hovers over this bounty.

Julie Berger Hochstrasser again:

Just what and how much did the buyers, owners, and viewers of these paintings in their time know of the true stories of the acquisition of these many commodities assembled, mute but splendid, in Dutch still life?

A grape withers and falls from the bunch. A caterpillar munches a leaf. Pockmarks appear on a hunk of edam. Early interpretations of still lifes posited them as warnings. The moral danger of luxury or gluttonous excess. Later commentators spotlight the economic backstory. These lavish spreads celebrate independence and the newly proclaimed Dutch Republic’s material prosperity.

Truth is, there are many possible meanings.

When gorgonzola became Google Scholar it wasn’t the only cheese to flip. Gouda became Buddha. Word autocorrects hijack my typing and the resulting translations read like a Dada poem someone wearing a birdcage might have performed in Zürich circa 1918.

Google Scholar 
Important fonts (imported fontina)
Stand alone (stilton)
Cheese crackers

For a long time female artists were missing from histories of Dada. Or mentioned only as lovers and helpers. Hannah Höch, one of the few recognised by the movement, was dismissed in a male colleague’s memoir-cum-chronology as a lightweight, the girl who provided the catering, ‘Sandwiches, beer and coffee.’ Cut with the Kitchen Knife is probably Hannah Höch’s best known photomontage. So yes, put her in the kitchen shaving cheese – I’m picturing a creamy, raw-milk tilsit or maybe gruyère – then note the work’s full title, Cut with the Kitchen Knife Dada Through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch of Germany, and we’re no longer in the kitchen composing sandwiches. We’re looking at a forceful, kaleidoscopic vision of German society.

Marcel Duchamp may have coined the term readymades, but he wasn’t the first to reposition the materials of everyday life as art objects. A year before he devised his first readymade, Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven a.k.a. the Baroness showed hers. And in 1917 when Duchamp submitted his now famous Fountain, she gave us God, a plumbing U-bend as sculpture. A big fuck you to the art establishment and to the powers that be.

Throw another question at Google: What’s the most widely produced cheese? 

Cheddar. At least thirteen countries churn out their own.

How about processed cheese – what’s the deal there?

Kraft developed its processed cheddar in the United States and launched it in Australia in 1925. Their ‘cheese-like substance’ had a lengthy shelf life and could be stored without refrigeration. The arrival of a local competitor, Maxam Cheese, three years later, sparked the ire of the Kraft Walker Company and a fiery and protracted legal battle ensued.

What art – if any – might be inspired by mass produced cheese? Kraft Singles instead of Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans? Or something agit-prop-y and satirical in the style of Barbara Kruger’s slogans? ‘Eat The Big Cheeses!’ in Futura Bold?

A long time ago, I sat in a theatre with half a dozen other audience members, listened to an audioscape of industrial noise and watched a woman take an hour to peel an apple. I recall an untouched slab of cheese on a side table. I checked my watch. What would the performer do if I walked on stage and helped myself to a snack? Was it a plastic prop or the real article? Checked my watch again. Was the artist trying to say something about gendered labour? Capitalism? Original sin? Was it some sort of homage to Marina Abramović? Were the apple and cheese a reference to the verisimilitude of traditional still life? One positive thing I can say about the experience, is that instead of following the boringly predictable – but then fashionable – route and appearing naked, apple-woman remained fully clothed throughout.

Could the tart in Clara Peeters’s still life with a tart be a cheesy one? 

Cheese and onion pie.
Cauliflower cheese.
Matar paneer. 
Macaroni cheese. 
Liptauer from Slovakia. 
New York cheesecake. 
Russian paskha.
New Zealand’s famous – or infamous – cheese rolls.

Cookery books of the past were written for women who knew what was what. Their recipes hands-on, narrative rather than prescriptive.

I read somewhere – at least I think I did – the argument that still-life paintings have no narrative. They’re purely description, the visual equivalent of literary exposition.

I have to disagree with that.

I love the chiaroscuro of those Dutch and Flemish canvases. I love their sensuality. When I look at them I can smell butter, nutmeg, a faint rasping of citrus. But most of all I love their drama. The table is set, food is offered, householders and guests partake and depart. The playwright in me conjures up an ensemble of players: the cooks and kitchen hands, the teenage servant girls who sweep up the crumbs, the provedores and market gardeners who supply the vegetables, the late-season plums, the cheese. Of course, the cheese. I concoct bios and dialogue, dream up scenarios that speak of intimate connections, of simmering tensions and treacherous acts. Mouth-wateringly beautiful in themselves, those still-life paintings are also trapdoors to the beguiling, candlelit universe of Jacobean theatre.

The Art Gallery of New South Wales has no still-life cheese on display and nothing by Clara Peeters, but they do have Maria van Oosterwijck’s Flowers and Grapes Hanging from a Ring. It’s apparently the earliest painting by a female artist in their collection.

I didn’t know much about cheese, but in the course of researching this essay I’ve become a gleaner of thin-sliced facts and maybe-facts. From a Queensland dairy firm’s plan to make a monster cheese for the 1905 Brisbane Show to the origin myth of camembert. From ancient, plant-derived coagulants to that perfect wensleydale savoured by a couple of spies in Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana.

Cheese is a cheese is a cheese.

And last month it was German walnut. My cheese of choice. This week it’s a Dutch artisan gouda, dusky orange in colour, twenty-four months matured. I discovered it browsing the selection at that Sydney deli counter. Much as I want to try it however, at sixty-one dollars ninety-nine a kilo, I buy only a very small piece. I might grate it over baked zucchini with a pinch of mace, or over pasta instead of my usual grana padano, or…or I might just go home, watch trash TV, eat hot, bubbling gouda, glued to Polish rye bread with a dab of mustard, and sip a glass or two of carefully chosen mellow rioja.


Margaret Cavendish, Observations Upon Experimental Philosophy, A. Maxwell, 1666.

Andrew Dalby, Cheese: A Global History, Reaktion Books, 2009.

Carlo Ginzburg, The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller, translated by John and Anne Tedeschi, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980.

Julie Berger Hochstrasser, Still Life and Trade in the Dutch Golden Age, Yale University Press, 2007.

Paul S. Kindstedt, Cheese and Culture: A History of Cheese and its Place in Western Civilization, Chelsea Green Publishing, 2012.

Alfred Michiels, Histoire de la Peinture Flamande et Hollandaise, Librairie Ancienne et Moderne de A. Vandale, 1845–1848.

Simon Schama, The Embarrassment of Riches, Collins, 1987.

Émile Zola, The Belly of Paris, translated by Brian Nelson, Oxford University Press, 2007.

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