Hast thou not poured me out like milk and curdled me like cheese? — Job 10:10
I promised, emptily at the time, to write on how cheese is made. I probably owe such a post to any and all who want to, or are kind enough to, read my thoughts on cheese; it makes an essential preface to descriptions of specific varieties, of differences and similarities, of historical developments — which is why all the glossy cheese books begin with some summary of the cheesemaking process. I pointed you here, and do so again, because that page will tell you what you need to know, and I might not. But for my own purposes, here’s the After Cheese Comes Nothing narration of cheesemaking:
BABY CHEESE BECOMES A MAN, IS EATEN
When the time is right we warm Mother Milk’s belly over the fire till its all nice and toasty. The warmth and the care and the smiles make a little Cheese Baby start to grow inside the milky womb; but it’s just a strange disjointed Curd Colony at first, and it swims through a warm white sea of whey, gurgling and plashing, its many clumps scattered about — until the Curd Colony is ready to “evolve” into a firmer solid. To make that evolution happen we then drop into the whey sea in Mother Milk’s belly some Magic Rennet Juice from sweet baby cow guts or thistle flowers, and the Magic Juice makes our Curd Colony stiffen up nice and tight. We pull a plug to let the whey drain away, or squeeze it out with a hug; and then what’s left in the desiccate womb of Mother Milk but a puling white Cheese Baby hungry for salt! Salt it we do — then mold it according to our wishes, lock it in a cellar, and let it rot there in the damp dark till we’re ready to eat it. What’s left of Mother Milk we feed to the pigs.
CHEESE BABIES GREEK AND CHRISTIAN
The above Tale of Baby Cheese reverses (at least) one very real analogy with a very long history among cheesemaking people: the analogy of human conception to cheese creation. Aristotle (384-322 BC) offers the first recorded instance of the analogy; and from there its recurrence throughout European and Mediterranean realms might be attributable to Aristotle’s long influence, with Arabs as much as Christians; to an older current of popular lore that Aristotle merely tapped; or perhaps to Providence. Aristotle wrote the following (in his De Generatione Animalium, Bk. II, 739b, 22-31, for those of you eager to look it up and highlight your home copies):
When the material secreted by the female in the uterus has been fixed by the semen of the male (this acts in the same way as rennet acts upon milk, for rennet is a kind of milk containing vital heat, which brings into one mass and fixes the similar material, and the relation of the semen to the catamenia is the same, milk and catamenia being of the same nature) —
Reading Aristotle is always this tedious. Here’s another instance (Bk. I, 729a, 7-14):
what the male contributes to generation is the form and efficient cause, while the female contributes the material. In fact, as in the coagulation of milk, the milk being the material, the fig-juice or rennet is that which contains the curdling principle, so acts the secretion of the male, being divided into parts in the female.
Aristotle’s systematic inquiries contributed the fundamental groundwork for much scholastic philosophy; so it’s not surprising that the analogy of cheese and conception rears up again in the Middle Ages. None other than our favorite Blessed Hildegard of Bingen (see the prior post) repeats the comparison in her scientific writing (Cause et cure) — “at first, the semen inside the woman is milky. Then it coagulates, and afterwards it becomes flesh, just as milk first curdles and then becomes cheese” — and then she even elaborates on it in her visionary writing (Scivias), where:
1. St. Hildegard combines a lesson on cheesemaking with a moving argument against incest:
Milk that is cooked once or twice has not yet lost its flavor, but by the time it is coagulated and cooked the seventh or eighth time, it loses its qualities and does not have a pleasant taste except in case of necessity. [No doubt “necessity” has something to do with Lot and his daughters in the desert outside burning Sodom.]
and 2. The Sybil on the Rhine invents a cheese-parable to explain why some people are good and some are no good. As it is with coagulation, so it is with men; sometimes you get a wimpy curd, sometimes you get a wimpy man. Good thick curd (read “sperm”)
produces forceful men to whom are allotted gifts, both spiritual and carnal . . . And some had cheeses less firmly curdled, for in their feebleness they have seed imperfectly tempered and they raise offspring mostly stupid, feeble, and useless . . . And some was mixed with corruption . . . for the seed in that brew cannot be rightly raised . . . and makes misshapen men.
Tertullian, the Church Father of the 2nd-3rd c. AD, went so far as to compare The Greatest of All Births, that of Jesus Christ, to cheesemaking (in his work “On the Flesh of Christ”). While explaining the particular details of Mary’s immaculate conception, Tertullian suggests that the nascent Jesus was like some variety of perfect but un-rennetted curd. It’s hardly worth mention that Jesus-curds were still shapely and firm; divinely so, even without rennet — unlike the dribbly curds of the “stupid, feeble, and useless.”
Later in life Tertullian converted to a heretical Christian sect called the Montanists. The Montanists believed that contemporary prophecies carried on and even trumped the Apostolic tradition; that Montanist prophets actually inhabited the Divine Being in a temporary ecstatic union, rather than just speaking the Word like a holy parrot; that the Church should be more disciplinary with sinners and more disposed to deny redemption. And most importantly, St. Augustine & Co. accuse the Montanists of including cheese along with bread and wine in the Holy Communion. (Today we’re not quite sure whether the Artotyrites, who definitely ate cheese during church — horrid devils — were splintered-off from the main Montanist heresy.) Here’s Thomas Aquinas himself on why cheese doesn’t belong on the Lord’s Altar.
CHEESE BABIES BASQUE
Some of the above is drawn from an article by Sandra Ott called “Aristotle Among the Basques: The ‘Cheese Analogy’ of Conception” (some from Cristina Mazzoni’s book on female mystics and food; some I just found). Ott also recounts the story of a 14th century French priest who promises his concubine that he can provide an anti-rennet — an herb that will actually stop or reverse lactic coagulation — which he intends her to use as a contraceptive. But Ott’s main anthropological object is the Basque community of Sanite-Engráce, where an analogy much like Aristotle’s is still valid tender. There, conception is conceived as the interplay of two fertile bloods, the odol gorri or “red blood,” in the womb of the woman, and the odol xuri or “white blood,” in the semen of the man. The white blood curdles the red blood; so when a woman begins to bulge with child her acquaintances exclaim “You have have been curdled!” These Basques make two types of cheeses: soft household cheese and hard mountain cheese. The former is casual; the latter competitive. Male cheesemakers stake their masculine pride on the quality of their mountain cheeses. (Ironically, they’re dubbed etchekandere, “the woman of the house,” when it’s their turn for cheesemaking up in the summertime shepherd huts.) Good cheesemaking men are appraised as potent males, able to both cause and prevent pregnancy in their sexual partners. And the man’s mountain cheese is considered his niñi txipia, “little baby,” which he must care for as though it were a living infant: heedfully nurturing its bones (the rind), baptizing it with salt (as he also baptizes his truly human children), and coddling it with care so that its weak baby body doesn’t bruise and break.
Needless to say, the Basque people make incredible cheeses — and have done so for millennia. Sheep’s milk cheese primarily. One name you should look for in specialty cheese shops is Ossau-Iraty Brebis Pyrénées: a semi-firm and subtle cheese that is sweet, nutty, tangy, mellow, and creamy in exquisite balance. An old man I respect once told me I should kill for that cheese, or die for it, I don’t remember. Another possibly purchasable Basque cheese is Idiazábal: slightly smoked and firm with flavors of fruit and olive, butter and wood (originally smoked by “accident,” as it was aged in mountain huts that lacked chimneys). There are certainly others. But here’s a drawing: