It is 1666 and the house of Samuel Pepys is in the way of The Great Fire of London. Any day now, any day. So, the great diarist starts digging holes as a way to save his valuables. And what goes in? Jewelry, antiques, valuable papers? From his diary:
“I did dig another [hole], and put our wine in it; and I my Parmazan cheese, as well as my wine and some other things.”
His cheese. Oh Pepys, you precious patron saint of TheBitterFlower, you saved your cheese!
Parmesan itself is an interesting thing. High in glutamates, it has one of the highest umami punches of any food. Also high in butyric acid, it smells very much like vomit.
Let someone have a whiff of this chemical in a vial labeled "vomit" and they will curl their nose, but if the label reads "parmesan" their mouths will water. The boundary between the terrible and sublime is that thin.
Good, and with a hint of sick. A great difficult pleasure.
Zola's take on cheeses from The Belly of Paris:
“...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.”
It is that flute-like parmesan that Pepys found so valuable. I assume that there are economics involved here, a wheel of parmesan has never been cheap. But I prefer to think that a different pragmatism was at play: If you have to return to a burnt down house, would you not want to temper the destruction? Would you not want to sit on the blackened ground and have little wine and cheese?