Issue 18: whatever happened to Samuel Pepys’ parmesan?
A pondering of the possibilities: served or preserved?
For as long as I’ve known about it, I’ve been fascinated by the fate of Samuel Pepys’ parmesan cheese.
As the Great Fire of London advanced on Pepys’ house in early September 1666, he buried his parmesan to protect it from the blaze. The fire would eventually destroy over half the city (some estimates say as much as 80%), including 13,200 houses and 87 churches.
Pepys – a clerk who rose to the influential position of administrator in King Charles II’s navy – kept detailed diaries from 1660 until 1669. They provide a uniquely human account of life in 17th Century London.
The Great Fire began around 1am on Sunday 2 September 1666 in a bakery on Pudding Lane. It was the end of a long, dry summer, and the strong winds blowing that morning caused the fire to quickly spread through London’s wooden buildings.
In his diary, Pepys documented how, on the evening of 2 September and into the morning of 3 September, he used a cart to carry “all my money, and plate, and best things” to a friend’s house in Bethnal Green (about 2.5miles to the east), and ferried other items away on boats.
The fire reached its peak on 4 September, by this time nearing the Tower of London, and Pepys’ home on Seething Lane, less than 500metres north-west of the Tower.
On 4 September 1666, Pepys famously wrote:
“Sir W. Batten [William, a sailor] not knowing how to remove his wine, did dig a pit in the garden, and laid it in there; and I took the opportunity of laying all the papers of my office that I could not otherwise dispose of. And in the evening Sir W. Pen [William, an admiral] and I did dig another, and put our wine in it; and I my Parmazan cheese, as well as my wine and some other things.”
By dawn on 6 September, the Great Fire was deemed extinguished; Pepys’ home was unscathed.
But what of the parmesan?
Just over a week later, on Friday 14 September, Pepys wrote in his diary that he “got my wine out of the ground again”.
While he didn’t explicitly say he retrieved his parmesan, Dr Kate Loveman, Associate Professor in English at the University of Leicester and editor of a 2018 edition of Pepys’ diaries, told me: “We can be pretty sure he got the cheese out too! And probably in a good state, or he'd have complained about it.”
But let’s suppose a minute that he didn’t. Could Pepys’ parmesan still survive in the former yard of his East London home today?
It’s not impossible…
Parmesan was first developed in the Middle Ages by Benedictine and Cistercian monks looking for a cheese with a long shelf life. A wheel of parmesan – officially known as Parmigiano Reggiano and produced exclusively in a handful of provinces in Northern Italy – is matured for at least 12 to 48 months. According to the Consortium for the protection of Parmigiano Reggiano’s Designation of Origin, “no maximum age has ever been set”.
In November last year, the Consortium auctioned a 21-year-old wheel of the cheese, describing it as “one of the oldest edible cheeses in the world”.
In the context of Pepys’ parmesan, the 21-year-old wheel isn’t particularly impressive. But there have been multiple extraordinary discoveries of dairy-based foodstuffs that survived buried for centuries.
In Ireland, there’s specimens of butter dating back 3,500 years found stored in peat bogs to keep it fresh. (It’s also suspected the butter was sometimes left in bogs as an offering, or – like Pepys did – for safekeeping). A report from University College Dublin said: “these chunks of butter can be thousands of years old and only becom[e] inedible after centuries in the ground.”
It's the cool, low oxygen, high acid environment of peat bogs which help preserve perishable food.
When the Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) excavated the area around Pepys’ former home in 2015, they described the earth as chalky. This type of soil characteristically holds little water and is high in alkaline – the opposite of a peat bog!
Although, cheese has been discovered preserved in the dry confines of an Egyptian tomb, sealed 3,200 years ago.
Nevertheless, the MOLA archaeologists did not find any parmesan in their excavations on Seething Lane.
But while absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence, let us – as Dr Loveman says – assume Pepys did retrieve his parmesan on 14 September 1666.
After all – like now – in the 17th Century, parmesan cheese was a high value, prestige item, and not something most people could afford to lose (hence Pepys burying it in the first place!) So valuable is it, that in Italy, the Credito Emiliano bank stores wheels of parmesan in its vaults as collateral for loans to cheese producers.
On 27 October 1666, Pepys held one of his first gatherings since the fire, dining with guests including Elizabeth Pierce (a family friend), her young son James (a favourite of Pepys), and Elizabeth Knepp (an actress).
Dr Loveman says: “Pepys reports there was singing and 'infinite mirth'. So, perhaps they broke out the cheese then?”
Thanks for reading. Feel free to hit reply to share your thoughts or feedback.
Til next time,
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