Mental Floss has abducted me

It’s clear now that I will not have time to write for both Mental Floss and this silly (unpaid) cheese blog. So I’m siding with Mental Floss, which sends checks. After Cheese Comes Nothing will be awarded an indefinite hiatus.

Meanwhile, you really should read my Mental Floss articles. Here’s the first regular offering. As you can see, I am no longer restricted to cheese. This bothers me a little, and it might bother you; but maybe it will open broad and beautiful new horizons? I don’t know exactly when my weekly posts will go up, but you can always keep checking, or bookmark my author page or something like that. The internet should be able to figure out a way to help you. Consider this a change of address, friends.

Mental Floss Guest Cheese-Blogging

The story is:

I have a little piece about cheese changing the lives of holy women that’s going to be published in an upcoming edition of mental_floss magazine.

Besides that, I have five Guest Blog post going up this week on the mental_floss webpage. That’s one for every day of the week. Which means three have already comes out. Here they are:

You may read them, if you’d like. Everything on the internet is voluntary. There’s more to come tomorrow and Friday — something about cheese mites and something else about something else.

You might notice I’ve had to make some adjustments in tone and breadth for this legitimate enterprise. No Bert and Ernie, yet. But it’s gone well. And I’m not sure when I’ll be posting here next, still, because I’ll probably be doing some more writing for them in the near future. 

Let’s just wait and see.

Pending

I realize I haven’t informed the curious, if there are any, of the reason for this recent dearth of posts. It’s good news.

I’m working on some pieces for publication, along the lines of what I’ve been doing here — a little shorter — containing some of what you’ll find below, and some new material — all written afresh. New words!

So: I’ll link to those pieces when they’re out. And we’ll see what happens from there.

Beckett and Joyce on Gorgonzola Cheese

Now, at last, for a literary interlude, I must offer two passages from Irish modernist prose, both of which feature Gorgonzola as their creamy centers.

Beckett’s More Pricks Than Kicks — his first published prose fiction, if I remember right (1934) — is something like a collection of short stories centered on the character Belacqua. Burning toast to an indigestible blackness is part of the refined, almost scientific lunchtime routine for this obsessive and compulsive youth; after which he sets out for the rotten cheese to complement: Gorgonzola.

Now the great thing was to avoid being accosted. To be stopped at this stage and have conversational nuisance committed all over him would be a disaster. His whole being was straining forward towards the joy in store. If he were accosted now he might just as well fling his lunch into the gutter and walk straight back home. Sometimes his hunger, more of mind, I need scarcely say, than of body, for this meal amounted to such a frenzy that he would not have hesitated to strike any man rash enough to buttonhole and baulk him, he would have shouldered him out of his path without ceremony. Woe betide the meddler who crossed him when his mind was really set on his meal.

He threaded his way rapidly, his head bowed, through the familiar labyrinth of lanes and suddenly dived into a little family grocery. In the shop they were not surprised. Most days, about this hour, he shot in off the street in this way.

The slab of cheese was prepared. Separated since morning from the piece, it was only waiting for Belacqua to call and take it. Gorgonzola cheese. He knew a man who came from Gorgonzola, his name was Angelo. He had been born in Nice but all his youth had been spent in Gorgonzola. He knew where to look for it. Every day it was there, in the same corner, waiting to be called for. They were very decent obliging people.

He looked sceptically at the cut of cheese. He turned it over on its back to see was the other side any better. The other side was worse. They had laid it better side up, they had practised that little deception. Who shall blame them? He rubbed it. It was sweating. That was something. He stopped and smelt it. A faint fragrance of corruption. What good was that? He didn’t want fragrance, he wasn’t a bloody gourmet, he wanted a good stench. What he wanted was a good green stenching rotten lump of Gorgonzola cheese, alive, and by God he would have it.

He looked fiercely at the grocer.

‘What’s that?’ he demanded.

The grocer writhed.

‘Well?’ demanded Belacqua, he was without fear when roused, ‘is that the best you can do?’

‘In the length and breadth of Dublin,’ said the grocer, ‘you won’t find a rottener bit this minute.’

Belacqua was furious. The impudent dogsbody, for two pins he would assault him.

‘It won’t do,’ he cried, ‘do you hear me, it won’t do at all. I won’t have it.’ He ground his teeth.

The grocer, instead of simply washing his hands like Pilate, flung out his arms in a wild crucified gesture of supplication. Sullenly Belacqua undid his packet and slipped the cadaverous tablet of cheese between the hard cold black boards of the toast. He stumped to the door where he whirled round however.

‘You heard me?’ he cried.

‘Sir’ said the grocer. This was not a question, nor yet an expression of acquiescence. The tone in which it was let fall made it quite impossible to know what was in the man’s mind. It was a most ingenious riposte.

‘I tell you’ said Belacqua with great heat ‘this won’t do at all. If you can’t do better than this’ he raised the hand that held the packet ‘I shall be obliged to go for my cheese elsewhere. Do you mark me?’

‘Sir’ said the grocer.

And now, from Joyce’s Ulysses: Leopold Bloom considers lunch, while struggling to keep his mind off his wife’s approaching adultery. He’s troubled by the carnivorous gluttony of his fellow customers (“Eat or be eaten. Kill! Kill!”), and so shuns beef for the moment. Almost settles on a sardine — the last lonely sardine of summer — but then asks at last for a Gorgonzola sandwich. Some critics, the Bloomlovers, consider his decision a sensitive compromise between the thesis of bloody meat and the antithesis of flimsy vegetarianism: a synthesis in the form of an animal food that does not entail the death of the animal. Richard Ellmann, who wrote the fat Joyce biography you will find at your bookstore, thought a Gorgonzola sandwich was the best existential choice, “because cheese is neither vegetable nor meat: it is formed from mammal’s milk without slaughter, and enclosed in bread which is vegetable in origin but reconstructed by man.” And what does Bloom think?

Kosher. No meat and milk together. Hygiene that was what they call now. Yom Kippur fast spring cleaning of inside. Peace and war depend on some fellow’s digestion. Religions. Christmas turkeys and geese. Slaughter of innocents. Eat drink and be merry. Then casual wards full after. Heads bandaged. Cheese digests all but itself. Mitey cheese.

Not the most immediately decipherable passage — but very nice, I think, and potent. Later, Bloom’s stream of consciousness dwells on

the feety savour of green cheese.

Ah yes.

Pervert.

Gorgonzola for the Busty Lady?

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Giotto's depiction of Envy: eats snakes backwards and wears fire for shoes.

Gorgonzola is another stracchino cheese, like Taleggio: it’s made from the milk of “tired” cows, coming down from the highs of their summer grazing in the Alps, on top of the world. (The curious may wish to read my post on Taleggio.) It used to be called “green stracchino,” generically, before it was named “Gorgonzola, “ after its alleged town-of-origin. At my home, we prefer to call it “the weeping green-eyed beast” — an epithet that bears no relation to the Green-Eyed Monster of Envy (that most deadly of deadly sins, “which doth mock the meat it feeds on,” according to Shakespeare, and makes you look like a leek left too long in the sun, according to William Langland).

In addition to the love-stricken swain tale (recited here), Gorgonzola boasts another origin-legend of folly, anxiety, and unexpected redemption. The story goes that a Gorgonzola-area innkeeper dealt in stracchino, before any stracchinos were green; and one day he discovered, to his horror, that much of his cheese stash had fallen ill with a greenish mold. After some deliberation the innkeeper decided — whether out of maudlin desperation or weasel-cunning — to push the green cheese on his customers. He called it a new food masterpiece, a culinary delicacy, a spectacle of local culture; he flourished all the old tricks of the confidence-man cheesemonger. His customers ate, unsuspecting, and they loved it. (They don’t always.) News of the new green cheese spread, and a regional wonder was born.

This would have been somewhere between the 9th and 11th centuries, probably. In the 1950s and 60s, low-quality imitators and foreign devils threatened the reputation of Gorgonzola — as well as the businesses of decent, traditional cheesemakers. So name-protection was granted in 1955 and a Consortium for the Protection of Gorgonzola Cheese was created in 1970. The cheese’s production is now restricted to Lombary and Piedmont; the method (a slightly unusual one) is now standardized, a little industrialized, as much as the Consortium decided it needed to be.

Visit the Consortium’s web page for more information on production — and also, more urgently, to see Italy’s new line-up of Gorgonzola Babes! A collage of photos, fading in and out over the title bar, consists of images you’d expect on the covers of romance novels and Cosmopolitan, images you might want to hide under your mattress. The marketing model for Gorgonzola seems to be “Glamor, Romance, and Cleavage.” Not an uncommon model . . . and no less apt for cheese than for watches and chewing gum, I suppose. Consider this ad I found, a mild example:


I prefer not to know what’s being said. I did find out, though, that “topolona” means “chick” in colloquial parlance, “big female mouse” more literally. “You beautiful big mother of rodents, you. You chubby, cheese-crazed mouse matron. Have some Gorgonzola, my pudgy, bucktoothed, primeval pest. And show me your mammaries — at least the tops, please. Or the sides.”

Gorgonzola can be bought young and sweet, dolce, or aged and piquant, piccante or naturale. I’ve had more experience with the dolce, and it’s a strikingly unique flavor: a lingering blue mold bite; a creamy white paste that melts like ice cream in your mouth; a honey-and-fruit sweetness that hits the higher tones on your palate. I haven’t had other blues much like it. (The closest I have had is a very fine and no less unique American rehashing called Oregonzola, made at Rogue River Creamery in Oregon.)

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Coat of arms of the Comune di Gorgonzola. To explain the symbolism: There is a piece of green cheese on top of the tower, as in life. The lions are racing. Both lions love green cheese, like good and brave people should. The Monarch watches over, and approves.

Graukäse photos by Mr. FX

Taking a brief detour from all that Gorgonzola jabber –

Anyone with any interest in:

1. Peasant cheeses

2. Ancient cheeses

3. Farmstead or home kitchen cheesemaking

4. Shapely wooden kitchen utensils (now your mouth must be watering, your head spinning, your fluids leaking . . .)

should take a few minutes to look at Mr. FX’s recent photo essay on farmstead Graukäse. This “primeval” cheese of Tyro demands no fancy techno-industrial hoohaw and gadgetry — not even rennet. The raw milk, left to sit, curdles itself and cultivates its own bacterial garden. But Mr. FX has already said what needs to be said in his post. So I will get back to making Thanksgiving pies and cultivating my holiday paunch.

Lovesickness in Blue Cheese Legends

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The Great Blue Heron: P. roqueforti of the wetlands.

Roquefort and Gorgonzola manifest the two strains of blue mold, Penicillium roqueforti and Penicillium glaucum, in their most traditional and famous forms. They may be the oldest blue cheeses, the prototypes; but they’re still around, eaten daily. Not dinosaurs. Perhaps they are to blue cheese what Plato and Aristotle are to philosophy (supposedly), or mice and weasels to mammals-in-general.

If we take these two as the primeval predecessors of all blue cheese — then where did they come from? How did humans (more specifically, the French and Italians) finally figure it out, the Great Blue Secret? The stories are surprisingly similar. Actually, according to prominent versions of these legends, they are surprisingly exactly the same:

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The Great Blue Hole.

A young and amorous dairyman, with the stolidity of a lobotomized labrador, abandons his milk (or cheese) to chase tail, as they say — to slobber and gape at the local sirens. When he comes back, having carved his love-blather on a thousand trunks and who knows what else, the milk (or cheese) has changed, and so has his world: during the young man’s absence a Great Blue Secret was bestowed on his milk (or cheese). As fearless as he is lascivious, the youth does not throw out his altered meal, but nourishes it, even reproduces it. And so: Blue Cheese!

I’ll allow for a little more specificity — but not much:

Roquefort: In Rouergue, France, a shepherd enslaved to Cupid leaves his lunch of cheese and rye in a limestone Cave of Combalou, so that he may pursue the village beauties with two free hands for pawing. Days later he remembers that cheese in the cave — maybe he repented of his carnal concupiscence and his faculties were restored, miraculously, or he realized that cheese was all along a better friend to him than hussies, always so self-sacrificing . . .  Either way, the shepherd curses his birth and returns, only to find a strange blue growth on his cheese nugget, a colony extended from the moldy bread. He eats the cheese anyway, out of curiosity (or hoping it’s poison and he’ll expire at last, proving the depth of his romantic spirit); his tongue touches blue and he has an epiphany; Roquefort is born.

(Rye bread encourages the growth of the blue mold natural to those Caves of Combalou. It  was used later – stale, moldy rye, I mean – to cultivate P. roqueforti for the soon-famous local cheese.)

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The Great Blue Turaco: The Largest Turaco.

Gorgonzola: In the foothills of northern Italy, in or near the town of Gorgonzola, a similarly distracted cheesemaker ditches his evening batch to rendezvous with a lover. (They pass a horrible night, all awkward missteps leading to bickering, silence and hurrumphs. Thank heaven for sunrise. As the swain returns to his cheese, he vows never to love again. That’s how I like to imagine it.) At dawn, hoping to conceal his negligence, the penitent dairyman ladles new morning curd atop the old, ripe evening milk — which has accumulated strange blue patches. He goes through with the cheesemaking process, despite the blue, and is later delighted to discover that he prefers this new, tainted concoction to whatever he was making before.

Moral: Bitter love makes better cheese.

Ugh.

(Mixing evening and morning milk is one key aspect of traditional Gorgonzola production. Along with cursing your cativa lover.)


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