Black Swan, $26.95,
Aromantic comedy with the WOW factor, Blessed Are makes you laugh, makes you cry and tells you everything you ever wanted to know, and more, about cheese-making.
Coolarney House, where Joseph Corrigan and Joseph Feehan (better known as Corrie and Fee) make succulent cheeses, is an Eden of the senses. Cheeses that delectably ooze or delicately crumble, paradisal wines, meals to make a lean cuisine chef weep, and women spilling an abundance of creamy flesh populate the house’s leafy environs, as mythically Irish as an army of leprechauns.
The first essential for producing perfect cheese is a bevy of five singing vegetarian milkmaids, who must be big with child and also able to sing sweet airs from The Sound of Music, a combination that produces honey-flavoured milk and, perhaps, biddable children. The worm in the apple is the absence of Abbey, the 29-year-old granddaughter of Corrie, taken away in infancy by her frightful mother, a Callista Flockhart-thin and unfeeling fashion plate. She is the sort of woman who checks her daughter’s measurements before her happiness. (The thin are not blessed by Sarah-Kate Lynch but are, to a woman, wicked and manipulative snakes.)
Abbey is married to a thin man, no better than his female counterparts, and lives with him on a Pacific island in a state of penury and enforced chastity. Meanwhile, as the two cheese-makers celebrate Abbey’s birthday in absentia with a Princess Grace Memorial Blue – a beautiful but fussy cheese wont to expel a foul odour if treated with disrespect – New Yorker Kit Stephens enters. Princess Grace is doing her worst in his rank refrigerator as he attempts to drink his way to oblivion after the disappearance of his wife, a tall, long-legged blonde model who is – be warned – painfully thin.
One way and another, Abbey and Kit find their way to Coolarney House. Knowing they are meant for each other, Corrie and Fee do their best with magical cheese and fine food and wine to make a match, but to no avail. It is violent dislike at first sight. With all its earthly delights, Coolarney House is not Eden. The two old men know that one of them is soon to die and time is running out for the fulfilment of their master plan, for it is only true love that produces great cheese.
As every true romantic knows, it is not hatred that is the opposite of love but indifference. How will Abbey and Kit find the path to true love and fulfil their destiny?
Lucy, one of the most delightful characters in a novel chockful of them, is waiting in the wings. The most unlikely milkmaid imaginable, she has a “tough girl grubby ferret look”, a tongue stud and absolutely no fondness for Julie Andrews, but her journey from teenage egocentricity to generous maturity is moving and utterly believable.
Although Blessed Are has elements of a fairytale and medieval romance, Lynch has a sharp eye for pretension and skewers it without mercy. Her characters are strongly drawn and the novel, despite elements of magic realism, is firmly rooted in reality. Coolarney House, for all its zany denizens, is a cheese factory, and the technical information is fascinating. For example, Coolarney Gold is a washed-rind cheese, meaning that it is smeared every two to three days with a yeast culture to give it a glistening rind which allows the cheese it encloses to become smooth and strong. The secret to Coolarney Blue is that blue mould from three-month-old fruit loaves is sieved and added to the curd.
Did you know that rennet (which acts as the starter) was once made laboriously from calves’ stomachs, but now comes freeze-dried? Or that vegetarian cheese is made from a vegetarian starter, although Fee darkly warns that it is not GM-free. And that the curd has to be cut, sliced, stirred and turned until it is in tiny pieces and then poured into moulds? And that it is then heavily salted to lock in the flavour and cancel the bacterial life from the rennet, to “freeze the equilibrium”?
Read with a glass of good red wine and a delectable cheese, Blessed Are is my recipe for a rollicking evening in.
Susan Budd is an Auckland reviewer.