Lobster: A Global History (Edible)

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A whey cheese such as the Greek myzithra is likely to be much older in practice than the earliest record of its name in the seventeenth century. The same may be said for the longmaturing Scandinavian gamalost, a pungent hard cheese made from skimmed milk. Quite possibly some Sicilian cheeses still produced today resemble the Sicilian cheeses liked by the ancient Athenians and those used in cookery by the medieval Arabs but, since no early descriptions survive, we cannot claim that it is so. So the third history of cheese has to be an exploration, based on historical evidence, of continuity and variety in cheese-making.

The Continuity of Cheese Continuity is easily and clearly demonstrated in historical records of the cheese-making process. In all surviving literature the oldest such description appears — all too briefly, as an aside from the plot — in one of the early Greek epics already mentioned above. In the Odyssey the unreliable Odysseus tells of an encounter with the gigantic, one-eyed Cyclops, who tended goats and sheep.

Next, for fuller cheese-making instructions, we can look to the Roman authors of farming books, beginning with Varro, a polymath and contemporary of Augustus who understood the business of farming in Italy thoroughly. In spring they milk early for cheese-making, in other seasons around midday, though owing to geography and to differences in food it is not the same everywhere. Those who add salt prefer rock to sea salt. To his practical advice Varro adds a typical scrap of antiquarianism: because of this property of fig sap the shepherds of early Rome had planted a fig tree beside the altar of their patron goddess Rumina.

What they milk at dusk and sunset they either carry to market in wicker baskets at daybreak — if the shepherd is off to town — or else tinge sparingly with salt and set aside till winter. When taken out of the moulds or baskets it is put in a dark cold place so as not to spoil; it is arranged on perfectly clean boards, sprinkled with ground salt to draw out the acid liquor; when hardened it is pressed even more forcefully to compact it; then it is treated again with roasted salt and again pressed.

After nine days of this treatment the cheeses are washed and arranged without touching one another, out of the light, on wicker trays made for this purpose, to dry out somewhat; then they are stacked close together on shallow shelves in a room that is closed and out of the wind. The first of these vices occurs if it is under-pressed; the second if over-salted, the third if scorched by the sun. This was evidently passed on in oral tradition, and we have three very different written records of it. Fortunately the young bride was about to ask the same question.

They prove that we are dealing with the same tradition, but some details are different. A third version, the fullest of all, is found among the homely rhymes of farming advice by the Essex eccentric Thomas Tusser. In Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry he inserted some sharp injunctions to an imaginary dairymaid, Cisley Cicely , concerning her inexpert cheese-making.

A few lines of his doggerel are enough to give the flavour: Gehazi his sickness was whitish and dry: Such cheeses, good Cisley, ye floted too nigh.

Rough Esau was hairy from top to the foot. If gentils be scrawling call Maggot-the-pye. Esau, the hairy man, serves as a warning against downy mildew. There is much more; this is the most complicated form that the rules of thumb for good and bad cheese ever assumed. Simple or complex, these rules can be countered in a moment by an observation that we can all make; surely Cisley eventually dared to put it into words.

One good cheese is not like the next. Grene chese is not called grene by ye reason of colour, but for ye newnes of it, for the whay is not half pressed out of it, and in operacion it is colde and moyste. Softe chese not to new nor to olde is best, for in operacion it is hote and moyste. Harde chese is hote and drye, and euyll to dygest. Spermyse is a chese the which is made with curdes and with the iuce of herbes. Yet besyde these. Since he had to add a fifth kind as an afterthought, it is clear that this classification did not satisfy even its author.

A slightly later author, Thomas Vaughan, saw that there was more to it than this. They may well have smelt like that, as Stinking Bishop proudly does today, but, like Stinking Bishop, Angelot cheeses were fairly briefly matured and no doubt washed in cider or perry. No horse-dung.

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This year I was assured by two informants that the streaks in Gorgonzola and similar blue cheeses are produced by copper rods. Attempting to set such urban legends aside, we will now explore the variables in the cheesemaking process: they, and their infinite combinations, result in the astonishing variety of cheeses that we now see, smell and taste.

We begin at the beginning with the sources of milk. The reason is that at this period producers generally mixed their milk. This was the natural outcome of subsistence farming, in which, if one could, one grew a variety of crops, kept a variety of animals, and made money — if at all — by surpluses which would vary from year to year. Medieval Arabic farming textbooks, which in general transmitted and exhanced Greek and Roman agricultural knowledge, have little to say about cheese, though they signal its importance indirectly by their emphasis on ensuring plentiful and wholesome milk.

But then, the rule is not meant for gastronomes: the focus is on subsistence farmers. In this area cattle do well, and the much greater volume of milk that they produce may well have tipped the balance. The people enjoy their milk and butter, while the rich live on meat. The next question that arises is: what fraction of the milk will be turned into cheese?

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In pre-modern conditions milk will not keep; nor will butter unless turned into ghee, a substance familiar in the ancient Near East and in modern India but seldom or never used in Europe. The industrial revolution and the increase in government control of food production created havoc in this pastoral paradise. Both milk and butter could be stored for long periods and widely distributed; in ever more regions of the world farming became part of the money economy; the retail price of milk was often kept artificially high.

If fresh milk and butter paid better, why devote the best of the milk to cheese? During the twentieth century such influences came near to ending the story of good-quality English cheese. Butter-making: illustration from a Liebig card, c. Some cheeses are made entirely from the whey that separates as part of the process of making ordinary cheese. The cooking encourages further milk protein to separate out. Whey cheeses can also take a quite different form.

Norwegian brunost is made from whey very slowly simmered with some added cream. The same product in other Scandinavian countries is known as mesost, myseost and mysuostur, the last Icelandic version made with a little added sugar. All are caramelized and somewhat sweet. Next is the question of rennet.

The Odyssey was quoted above for its vignette of cheese-making. The wool is rinsed, and the rinsing is put into a little milk. This, mixed with other milk, curdles it. In most places, however, and for most forms of cheese, animal rennet has been the rule. Ancient authors, already quoted, suggest fig sap, safflower seed, the flower or choke of the cardoon and its cultivated descendant, the artichoke.

Lobster: A Global History (Edible)

These ancient vegetable rennets are largely forgotten. Interesting as they used to be to observant Catholics and as they still could be to vegetarians, they are scarcely ever used nowadays in cheeses that reach a mass market. The carnivorous plants called butterwort and sundew in English, Pinguicula vulgaris and Drosera spp. One of the rare truly vegetarian cheeses, curdled with cardoon flowers Cynara cardunculus. In the earliest Latin cheese-making instructions, likewise quoted above, Varro mentioned the use of vinegar to curdle the milk.

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Even in the ancient context this comes as no surprise. The Greek cookery author Paxamos, who probably worked in Roman Italy and whose writings were known to Varro, had already given a recipe for a fresh cheese or junket made in just this way. The next variable to consider is the age of the cheese, beginning with the very earliest stage, at which the curd is still separating from the whey. The German quark, the French fromage blanc and fromage frais are actually sold with their whey while it is still draining; the porous inner container of cheese can be removed and the whey drunk from the outer container.

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That is a special development, but a healthy taste for whey has a long history. As with ricotta so with Quark, similar very young cheeses or notquite-cheeses are found under numerous names over a very wide area. Its humours are not bad nor particularly thick, which is the common fault of cheese. Very good, too, is the Vatusicus cheese preferred by the wealthy in Rome; there are other similar types elsewhere.

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The last part of this is so to speak still in force. It was called green not from its colour but from its freshness, and this metaphor goes a long way back.

We know this because of the advice, re-ported in a lawsuit, that if one were looking for a man from Plataiai one would be sure to find him at this fair. This is what big cities do to their neighbours.

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Ancient Rome liked its young Vestine cheese from the nearby central Apennines: the best was from the campus Caedicius, says Pliny. The pressure in such cases was purely economic but no less irresistible. This, or something like it, is the caseus prosalsus served among desserts at a restaurant, according to a dialogue in a Greek-Latin phrase book. By contrast, in pre-modern conditions extreme skill was needed in the making of any cheese that was destined for long maturing.

We went up into the mountains and came upon a group of huts in which a large number of boys, no more than fourteen years of age, were engaged in cheese-making. Their master, who was with me, watched over them very minutely.