Disasters bring out both the best and worst in people. History is littered with stories of people performing both acts of great heroism and despicable deeds while the world collapses around them. Another thing disasters show about people is what they hold dear. Nowadays it is such a popular conundrum that it has become cliche: if the worst happened, what would you take with you?
Everyone would answer this differently, of course, depending on what they value. When the Great Fire of London struck in September of 1666, a wealthy man by the name of Samuel Pepys was confronted by just that question. As the fire burned within sight of his home, he and his servants rushed to save his belongings.
A typical response, no doubt. But one thing Pepys did might seem odd to modern eyes. He recorded in his diary that, as the fire approached, he buried his wine and Parmesan cheese in a hole he’d dug in the garden. Why would someone go to such great lengths to save cheese?
A man and his cheesse
Most modern Americans only experience Parmesan cheese in the crumbly form we dump on our spaghetti at faux Italian restaurants. The food goes back much further than that, though. It has been produced in the Po Valley of Italy as far back as 2000 years ago. The cheese was produced from skim milk, and aged for two years before it was considered finished. It was produced in huge wheels, weighing anywhere between 84 and 200 pounds. These wheels could be quite valuable, because like a fine wine, Parmesan grows in value as it matures.
In Pepys’ time, the cheese was considered a delicacy among the noble and wealthy classes, so its price was quite high. So, when Pepys buried his cheese, it was the equivalent of a modern person burying a gold bar for safe keeping.
By the way, Parmesan is still considered very valuable. Banks in Italy hold 300,000 wheels of the stuff in their vaults, worth an estimated $200 million.
As for Pepys’ cheese, its fate remains unknown. His house survived the fire–Seventy thousand or more Londoners were not so fortunate– but he never recorded the fate of his prized Parmesan.
“Why Did Pepys Bury His Parmesan Cheese?” HistoryHouse.co.uk. 2013. History House. March 3, 2014. <www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=8&ved=0CEkQFjAH&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.historyhouse.co.uk%2Farticles%2Fparmesan_cheese.html&ei=0KAUU6j8FIL4yQGCwoCQDw&usg=AFQjCNHKo8D0ILbPc4FO79FycyN1nzvaRg&bvm=bv.61965928,d.aWc>