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Radio Review: From cheese to Cleese... it's all about the mother


John Cleese  and wife Jennifer Wadeon

John Cleese and wife Jennifer Wadeon

John Cleese and wife Jennifer Wadeon

Should the cheese-makers of the future revive the Countess of Thomond’s lemon cheese?”

It’s a question that combines three of my favouritest ingredients (into one tasty whole). Those ingredients being: 1) Cheese, 2) The future (robot butlers, flying cars, lemon cheese etc), and, 3) Er...let’s see...countesses? Or...um...questions that look quite amusing when taken out of context but weren’t actually all that amusing really? Whatever. I definitely like the future. And cheese.

Catherine Cleary, (restaurant critic with The Irish Times, pictured top right) and Juliana Adelman (historian and asker of the above question) really like cheese too. Less clear, at the time of going to print at least, are their views on the peerage and robot butlers.

Anyway, it’s not just cheese they like. They both love food. All food. And food-related activities, ephemera and lore. I gathered this from Saturday’s edition of History on a Plate (RTE Radio 1), which kicked off with Cleary saying “We both love food.” Which kind of gave the game away. No flies on me.

The series (now mid-way through its second season) is, as Cleary puts it, all about “exploring recipes from our past, to find out what they can tell us about who we are, and who we were.”

Previous programmes have seen curry, spuds and pickled foods (etc) given a platform to tell us about who we are/were, but it was cheese grabbing the mic this week. Lemon cheese to be specific.

The Countess of Thomond’s lemon cheese to be even more specific. Which sounds disgusting but was, apparently, unexpectedly lovely.

In-house olde food re-creator Domini Kemp was the chef tasked with whipping life back into the Countess’s 18th-century recipe.

The results prompted talk of “agitated fat” and an “ugly appearance,” which kind of made you feel a wee bit sorry for it (the cheese I mean). Cleary did, however, ultimately declare it “really delicious,” though this may have been a white lie, designed to spare its feelings.

The sounds of cooking and eating do not, easily, great radio make, but there was,

fortunately, more to this cheese-fest than munching and beating.

We heard from “food and culinary historian” Regina Sexton about how “diet was really dominated by dairy foods” in medieval Ireland. Why then, Cleary wondered, “don’t we have a long unbroken cheese-making tradition in Ireland”?

Jonathan Bell (former Director of the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum) suggested that in the years immediately before the famine “the subsistence farmer” simply hadn’t enough “surplus milk to turn into cheese.”

Cheesemonger Seamus Sheridan agreed, blaming this lack of surplus on the fact that “in Ireland we had almost 100pc landlords controlling all our farms.”

A situation which ensured, said Juliana

Adelman, that cheese production remained largely in the hands of “wealthy hobbyists.”

Solid stuff overall, then. Unlike the Countess’s oozing lemony goo.

From cheese to Cleese. John Cleese that is. In Dublin to promote his recent autobiography (So, Anyway...), and in the Shelbourne Hotel to submit to what was, apparently, his “only sit-down Irish radio interview” (he may have done others, standing up).

The show? Monday’s Moncrieff. The interviewer? Henry McKean, pictured above. The result? Neither as bad as I’d anticipated, nor as good as it could have been.

Cleese spoke of his troubled relationship with his mother (“a very neurotic woman ... not one who was very often happy or relaxed”), the restrictions of his “lower-middle class” upbringing (“the arts were simply not something that people from Weston-Super-Mare went into”), and (continuing the theme) the resilient persistence of classism (which, he said, “still seems to have much more of a grip on society in Britain than I ever thought it would”).

As for McKean ...his questions tended towards the insipid, while his tone tended towards (or went some way beyond) the fawning. “You’ve had an amazing career,” he gushed. “It’s an honour to be sitting beside you, John Cleese.”

“It is. It is,” joked Cleese. “Unforgettable moment for you ... to illuminate your miserable little life.” “I’m just trying to tease you,” he added (after McKean had protested that he had “a very good life”), “into not being so reverent towards me.”

It didn’t work.

Oh and it turns out that this week’s progression was both from cheese to Cleese, and from cheese to....er...Cheese.

Cleese’s dad, you see, was “the first ever Cleese,” having changed the family name from Cheese to Cleese because he was, unsurprisingly, “fed up with being teased” about it.

But that’s enough about Cleese...I mean Cheese...and/or cheese. I’m confused. And hungry. Time for lunch. Gouda go.

History on a Plate RTE, Radio1, Saturday

Moncrieff, Newstalk, weekdays