Who buried my cheese? | Samuel Pepys and the Great Fire of London, 1666

In early September 1666 the Great Fire of London swept through the medieval City, destroying more than 13,000 houses as well as 87 churches and St Paul’s Cathedral. It had started shortly after midnight on 2 September in Thomas Faryner’s Pudding Lane bakery. Samuel Pepys’s house in Seething Lane, just half a mile to the east, was in the line of the fire which was driven westward by strong winds and Pepys was worried. What concerned him was not so much for his personal safety as for his gold, his wine – and his cheese.

Faryner plaque

On the 2nd, Pepys and his wife watched the fire from close up, seeing the ‘showers of firedrops’ that set light to more and more houses. He described it as a “most horrid malicious bloody flame, not like the fine flame of the ordinary fire.” This was because man of the City cellars stored oil, black powder (left over from the Civil War) and other inflammatory substances.

Fire of London

On 3rd and 4th September, Pepys shifted many of his possessions by cart or by river boat but the necessary hands to transport heavy goods and space on the boats was limited and on the evening of 4th September he and his friend Sir William Pen dug a hole in Pepys’ garden “and put our wine it; and I my Parmazan cheese, as well as my wine and some other things”.

Pepys never said what the wine was in his cellar that year. In July of the previous year he had congratulated himself on having “two tierces of Claret, two quarter casks of Canary, and a smaller vessel of Sack; a vessel of Tent, another of Malaga, and another of white wine, all in my wine cellar together; which, I believe, none of my friends of my name now alive ever had of his owne at one time.”  Two tierces of claret was around 300 litres (far too heavy to transport in cask); the quarter casks probably 8 gallons each.  Later in November 1666, he describes taking three friends on to Tower Hill “to shew them what houses were pulled down there since the fire; and then to my house, where I treated them with good wine of several sorts, and they took it mighty respectfully.” (Pepys was always mighty keen to show off his possessions to his friends.)

Samuel Pepys

The fire had come very close before it was halted by the dynamited firebreaks and the dropping winds; stopping at the end of his street and months later the cellars were still smoking but the danger had passed and Pepys was soon able to reclaim his possessions and return his wine to his own cellar, though “with great pain to keep the porters that carried it in from observing the money-chests there.” (Another Pepysian trait was fear for his gold.)

The weight and bulkiness of the wine made it hard to transport but why bury the cheese as well? Firstly, it was valuable – both in monetary terms and for the bragging rights it undoubtedly conferred. It was a very high status product then as now. French playwright Molière – a contemporary of Pepys – was reputed to have lived on port and parmesan in the last years of his life. (The www.parmesan.com website solemnly comments that that his diet had “merit from a nutritional standpoint” since the cheese is rich in protein and easy to digest.)

Parmesan wheel

As late as mid 16th century Pope Pius V had sent Queen Mary a diplomatic gift of “eight great Parmesan cheeses” and the cheese was used as a store of value as well since it did not deteriorate, came in standard weights, and could not easily be counterfeited. Even in the 21st century cheese is held by Italian banks as loan collateral. In 2009, Credito Emiliano, the Italian regional bank, had a stock of over 150 tons of cheese valued at nearly $200 million. And the cheese was weighty. Today’s wheels are a standard 36 kilos; in the 16th century Pepys’ cheese may have weighed as much as 80-90 kilos.

It must have been a big hole!

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