Saturday, December 15, 2012

Time To Talk of Cheese

Cheese-making; molds can be seen on the left.
Warm up some milk, add an acidifying agent, let it cool, drain off the whey to leave the curds, and the result is cheese. We don't know who first made cheese—the best guess is that milk stored in a vessel made from the stomach of a ruminant became cheese accidentally—but it has been around for thousands of years.

The Romans loved cheese—especially fresh goat cheese—and Pliny has much to say about the different kinds from different parts of the Empire. As cheese-making spread—often by the expansion of Roman culture into Europe—local varieties developed due to differences in climate and bacteria.

Cheese was a good addition to the Christian diet, since it was protein-heavy and could be consumed on days when meat was not allowed. A Monk of St. Gall (identified as Notker the Stammerer) wrote a biography of Charlemagne called De Carolo Magno (On Charles the Great), full of glorifying anecdotes. It has a revealing story about the emperor that involves cheese:
Now on that day, being the sixth day of the week, he was not willing to eat the flesh of beast or bird; and the bishop, being by reason of the nature of the place unable to procure fish upon the sudden, ordered some excellent cheese, rich and creamy, to be placed before him. And the most self-restrained Charles, with the readiness which he showed everywhere and on all occasions, spared the blushes of the bishop and required no better fare: but taking up his knife cut off the skin, which he thought unsavoury, and fell to on the white of the cheese. Thereupon the bishop, who was standing near like a servant, drew closer and said, "Why do you do that, lord emperor? You are throwing away the very best part." Then Charles, who deceived no one, and did not believe that anyone would deceive him, on the persuasion of the bishop put a piece of the skin in his mouth, and slowly ate it and swallowed it like butter. Then approving of the advice of the bishop, he said: "Very true, my good host," and he added: "Be sure to send me every year to Aix two cart-loads of just such cheeses." [Book I, Chapter 15]
We cannot say which variety of cheese tickled Charlemagne's palate. Gorgonzola is mentioned in 879, and cheddar around 1500, but we don't know if 9th century Gorgonzola or 16th century Cheddar tasted the same as the varieties we eat today.

Medieval Cookery has a recipe for fresh cheese, and you can find more at the Medieval Cheese Forum.

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