Samuel Pepys Rescued His Parmesan Cheese During Great Fire of London
As the Great Fire of London swept through the city in 1666, destroying over 13,000 houses in its wake, the now-famed diarist Samuel Pepys was on a mission. On the third day of the fire, while London experienced a panicked mass exodus, Samuel Pepys joined forces with a friend, dug a hole and buried his Parmesan cheese for safekeeping.
Samuel Pepys has principally been remembered for the diary he kept between 1660 and 1669, which has provided profound insight into the everyday life of 17th-century London. Besides a vivid account of the Great Fire of London , the diary of Samuel Pepys has also been remembered for its candid details about Pepys' various infidelities.
Written in tachygraphy shorthand, Pepys never intended the diary to be read by his contemporaries. He did however bind the loose pages into six volumes and ensured his diary survived after his death in 1703. It was only transcribed into plain English in the 1820s.
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Regarding the Great Fire of London, you might wonder why someone would bury Parmesan during such a catastrophic event. This famous Italian cheese, dubbed the King of Cheeses, was created by monks in Parma and Reggio Emilia during the Middle Ages and has a history going back almost 1,000 years.
The Great Fire of London by Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg. ( Public domain )
The recipe for Parmesan cheese was designed to ensure its long preservation by using salt from the nearby Salsomaggiore salt mines and milk from cows raised in local monasteries, before being aged in large wheels. As far back as 1612, the Duke of Parma recognized cheese from Parma as the only true Parmesan, officially protecting it from copycat cheeses.
For centuries, authentic Parmesan cheese, labelled Parmigiano Reggiano, has been produced using this ancient recipe. Each wheel requires an impressive 550 liters (145 US gallons) of milk sourced from grass-fed cows. Natural whey and rennet (curdled milk from the stomach of unweaned calves) are added, creating a bacteria blend unique to Parma. The resulting cheese is aged for a minimum of 12 months, though Parmesan gets stronger and crumblier with age.
Parmesan's elaborate production process is what makes it so highly sought-after, and expensive, to this day. In Pepys' era, a single wheel weighed around 200 lbs (90 kg) and was seen as a symbol of opulence.
It was even used as a diplomatic gift, with Pope Paul IV presenting Queen Mary with eight wheels of the Parmesan in 1556, while History House reported that one hundred were gifted to Henry VIII by the Pope in 1511. It is therefore no wonder that Samuel Pepys would go to such lengths to protect his Parmesan cheese as the fire descended on his Seething Lane home near the Tower of London .
Top image: Parmesan cheese on a smoky background. Source: AnneMarie / Adobe Stock