Archive for the 'Cheese History' Category

Gorgonzola for the Busty Lady?


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.)


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.

Lovesickness in Blue Cheese Legends


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:


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.)


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.


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

What makes you so blue?


Every better future that one wishes for mankind is also necessarily a worse future in some respects, for it is fanatical to believe that a new, higher stage of mankind would unite all the merits of earlier stages and would, for example, also have to produce the highest form of art [cheese]. Rather, each season has its own merits and charms, and excludes those of the other seasons.

– Fritz Nietzsche

Another variation on the usual method: I’m going to start addressing reader comments, when the fancy strikes (and rest assured that my responding or not responding bears no relation to my opinion on the value of a comment: it’s all caprice and vagary, determined more by digestion and moon cycles than Sovereign Reason). As the topic I’m aiming at now is Gorgonzola (a blue cheese), my starting point will be a comment responding to the stories of Margaret Mary Alacoque’s cheese-eating asceticism and Daniel Defoe spooning cheese mites off his early-modern Stilton (another blue cheese):

I’ve never seen stilton covered in mites… And I have certainly never been blessed with visions of Christ as a result of eating cheese. Maybe the good cheeses were fewer and farther between, but was the best Old World stilton leaps and bounds ahead of today’s best? Have we sacrificed punctuated quality for consistent mediocrity? You focus on the low-end of cheeses, but what about the high? Was Mary tripping on mold or blissed out on a small slice of heaven?

And what kind of cheese am I actually eating in my blue cheese dressing?

1. It’s not unusual that you haven’t seen any Stilton covered in mites. Few sheltered contemporaries have. Times are tougher for cheese mites — one of the ecological cruelties of the modern age. But I’ve read in the weeklies they are banding together in unions and demanding the right to return to public view, without shame. They wear red scarves around their bug-waists to signal solidarity. Until their cry is heard (which will require the most sensitive ears), you can see cheese mites on Stilton in the first nature documentary of all time!, called “Cheese Mites” (1903). (I have to link to BBC because I can’t figure out how to embed this one, if it’s even possible.)

(There is no narration, because there was no David Attenborough, and without Attenborough there’s just no point.)

And if you haven’t seen God yet — believe me, you’re the last — here He is, too:



God appears for your personal vision.

2. In “Curse Cheese, and Die” I wasn’t suggesting that Old World cheese was bad in the Old Days, just that some people had problems with it — found it “extremely lowly, offensive and excremental” (Lotichius), or considered it a symbol of death and decay (the original Yorick’s Skull). I don’t know how it tasted. Some people did like it, I think; and whatever cranky writers griped about, people kept on making cheese, undaunted. Was the best Old World Stilton better than ours? (Remember Sebastian the Crab’s pièce de résistance — “The seaweed is always greener …”) Probably in some ways, not so in others. And insofar as artisanal cheesemakers try to blend the virtues of the old (like raw milk, smaller batches, and handmade care) with the new (like improvements in technology, consistency, and control), there’s a good chance that we’re now able to eat the best cheese of all time. And wouldn’t that be gratifying.

For the curious, there’s a cheese sold now called Stichelton that may be closer to the Stilton-original that Defoe found crusted with mites at the Bell Inn, since it’s handmade with raw instead of pasteurized milk. It’s called Stichelton because English law dictates, after a hasty 1996 decision, that name-protected “Stilton” must come from pasteurized milk. If you eat it, you will enjoy it, you may swoon or speak in tongues, but you will not be able to pay your bills and will be reduced in your old age to collecting recyclables.

3. Finally: What kind of cheese is blue cheese?

Blue cheese is blue because it is infested with blue bacteria. There’s no curse upon it, at least none of consequence. The most famous of these tiny beasts is Penicillium roqueforti, originally used to make Roquefort, the most famous French blue; now used to make most all blue cheeses. The other popular strain is Penicillium glaucum, which is found in the milk-jungles of Gorgonzola. These molds began their world-conquests from isolated caves in France and Italy: local aberrations uncovered by chance or Providence, captured and enslaved for the service of humanity. (They probably don’t miss their cave homes terribly: everybody was so quiet, slow, and blind.) These molds viciously defend their terrain, fending off less cheese-worthy breeds of bacteria — the kinds that rot cheese and people alike. And the reason blue cheeses are streaked or blotchy is that the blue molds thrive with exposure to air; so at some point in the maturing process a cheesemaker will pierce the fledging blue with a long needle, providing the mold with tracks of open air to crowd and congest with its piquant flesh. (Some blues are crumbly and porous enough that piercing isn’t necessary.)


I’ve already spoiled the “short” part of the “frequent and short entries” ambition, so I’m abandoning the path here. I’ll try to adjust.

Cheese Slang, pt 3: Cheese-eaters, Yankees, Cheese-heads

One more cheese slang post, and it’s over.

The Dutch have long been associated with dairy: Dutch cows, Dutch dairymaids, Dutch butter, Dutch cheese. It’s good cow land in the Low Countries; and the Vikings brought good cows, way back. So the Dutch have exported cheese since the Middle Ages, and their industry boomed during the Age of Exploration, or Discovery, or Colonization, or whatever it was. Wherever Dutch ships went they brought Dutch cheese. (The Netherlands is still, despite its shamefully tiny size, one of the world leaders in cheese exports.)

And what

And what do Dutch dairymaids do in their spare time? Why, enjoy the seductive advances of pointy-chined misers.

One consequence of all this is that the Dutch have, due to the mean-spiritedness of man, gathered a few cheese-related nicknames.


Today, this epithet only offends criminal lowlife, to whom “cheese-eater” means “rat,” which means “informer.” In the past, Catholics threw it disparagingly at Dutch Protestants. Why? Because the Dutch Protestants were calling the Catholics “fish-eaters” — and such a wild assault deserved the kind of swift and brutal retaliation that only another mighty insult, like “cheese-eater,” could inflict. Words are truly the most vicious weapons.

Catholics had some reason to be sensitive to the “fish-eater” insult. One of the points that set Catholic humans apart from Protestant humans was their Friday fast. This fast had evolved over centuries into the practice of No Meat Fridays: the Catholics didn’t forgo food altogether, just gave up the luxury of meat, to please God and/or themselves in various ways. And meat was a luxury, indeed, requiring money to buy or land to raise. Fish, however, was not a luxury, since all you needed to eat till your ears bled was a donut and a fishing line. Or, better yet, Ernie’s fish call:

Besides, everybody knows that Jesus loved fish, at least as much as he loved God, his neighbor, sinners, and everything else. He loved fish so much he used his magic to unnaturally multiply them. So for Catholic devotees No Meat Fridays became Fish Fridays — only one vital step away from Friday Fish Fries.

For monks No Meat Days were not confined to Fridays, since everything has to be harder for a monk; and it’s been suggested that monks developed their exquisitely meaty monastic cheeses — of the washed-rind variety — to keep their meals flavorful and satisfying despite the deprivation they suffered, for God’s sake, with their intermittent-vegetarianism. And this makes the Catholic retaliation of “cheese-eater” all the more ridiculous, because cheese-eating in no way set Protestants apart from any Europeans, especially not Catholics.


You might not be able to tell, but that's Judas in Satan's mouth, receiving his just desserts.

The reason they fast on Friday, as I understand it, includes the following: In early Christian communities, Jewish converts sometimes felt uncomfortable abandoning all of their sacred rituals and habits; so the semiweekly Jewish fast days were absorbed into Christianity, to calm everyone down. Wednesday and Friday were chosen because the ultimate “cheese-eater” Judas (may Satan chomp him eternally) ratted Christ out on Wednesday, and then Christ was crucified on Friday. Sad days for all — but especially for those who believe/d Christ is/was God. Then Friday just took precedence over Wednesday, I guess. I became tired of researching at this point.


So when the Dutch Protestants called Catholics fish-eaters, the Catholics felt the sting; and they retorted with “cheese-eater.” For the Catholic Church this insult has a history, as an accusation of heresy — as I’ve mentioned before. The Church Father Epiphanius (4th c. AD) accused a heretical sect of mixing cheese into the bread and wine of communion (making a bougie wine-and-cheese party out of every Sunday). In his Panarion, Epiphanius calls these heretics the Artotyrites, aka “cheese-eaters” (literally translated as “bread and cheese”)– but they were also known as Phrygians, or Quintillianists, or Pepuzians, or Priscillianists (hold on to all that), and in addition to cutting cheese at the Lord’s table they also, and no less heretically, believed that Christ turned into a woman to have a lesbian encounter with their prophetess founder, Priscilla or Quintilla, in the town of Pepuza; that Eve was decent, and Moses’ sister was a prophetess; that women could be priests; and that “In Christ Jesus there is neither male nor female.” Clearly, as Epiphanius is quick to point out, “they have overlooked the command of the apostle, ‘I suffer not a woman to speak, or to have authority over a man,’ and again, ‘The man is not of the woman, but the woman of the man’” — which today we know are rather nasty things to say, but apostles are not to be second-guessed. St. Augustine later equated these Artotyrites with the Montanists, righty or wrongly. You can guess what happened to the Montanists: there aren’t many around today . . .

Enough about “cheese-eaters.”


Jan and Kaas were both common Dutch first names. Sometimes they were combined in the same person, a Jan Kass, and sometimes used as nicknames. The frequency of these names led Flemish mockers with lazy tongues to call all the Dutch Jan Kaas, which can translate literally into “John Cheese.” This was, of course, an insult, as most cross-cultural nicknames are; until the Dutch “appropriated” the term, as they say, and started flinging Jan Kaas at the English. What had the poor English to do with any of this? They were calling the Dutch mean names, too: never presume innocence. They deserved the retaliation. And so it is that the name John Cheese, applied to New England colonials, may have served through mispronunciation or accented-confusion as the source for the famous American title “Yankee” (which was, again, a term of derision at first, then was “appropriated” during the Revolution).

There are some real people named John Cheese today, like this man, who “is fat and afraid of women.” Then there’s John Cleese, the Monty Python performer, who’s so close to real thing that one imagines his parents just left off the hook of the “h” while scribbling on his birth papers. Despite that original accident, John Cleese has proven his affection for cheese in this skit:


Non-Dutch Interlude

“Cheese” also refers to a mixture of drugs in Tylenol PM and heroin that, when snorted, will make you “euphoric, and then sleepy, lethargic, and hungry.” They started making it in Dallas, where everyone’s sleepy, lethargic, and hungry anyway, so they’re more than pleased to add euphoria to the day and have nothing to lose with the comedown.



Before Brett-Favre-Greatest-American-Alltime-Hero-Way-Better-Than-Obama, before the Packers, “cheese-heads” were just common Dutchmen.


Edam cheese seems responsible. From the 14th to the 18th century, it was arguably the most popular cheese in the world, I hear. It was first made near Edam in North Holland, possibly in the 12th century, and has been known by local names such as Manbollen, Katzenkopf, and Tete de Maure. At my home, its referred to as Manzenaure, Boltzentete, and Kravencaes. Enemies of the Dutch called Edam cheeses “cannonballs” sometimes, because it was alleged that the Dutch would shoot these ball-shaped cheeses on foreign ships after they ran out of heavy metal balls to shoot.

Edam’s a washed-curd cheese (not washed-rind), which means that the curds are washed in hot water before they are salted. (It’s a mystery even to Neville McNaughton why the Dutch would start doing such ac crazy thing.) Washed-curd cheeses tend to be mild, sweet, pliable, and they mature slowly — which was an advantage to Dutch sea-goers, who needed a cheese that would not rot on long voyages; that would, instead, just get better and better. To protect their Edams on long voyages, Dutch sailors would wrap the cheeses in cloth soaked in wax and herbs, then hang the bag over a vat of horse manure. (Juliet Harbutt shares this fact, but of course can’t explain why that happened either. Food history is a realm of fogs and mirages.) Ammonia exuded by the heap of turd would redden the cloth. And that, dear friends, is why Edam today is wrapped in red wax.

For the home-cheesemaking hobbyist, the only way to “authentically” age an Edam at home is, of course, to forgo your toilet when you feel the old dark urge, and instead fill up over a period of weeks your own vat of excrement; then hang the cheese above it. If you live in an apartment, I recommend using a porch or patio for this.

I bought a piece of supermarket Edam from Wisconsin, and I found what I expect: unobtrusive, even too shy, with a familiar, brightly “cheesey” taste. Put it on white bread, pay close attention, and you might notice some pleasant tang. I’m sure things are different with farmhouse Edam from the Netherlands; but I don’t have any farmhouse Edam from the Netherlands.

I can, however, get good aged Mimolette, and so can you. It still comes in cannonball form, with a hard crust for a rind made porous by cheesemites. Mimolette is in fact a copy of Edam. By the 17th century, Edam was so overwhelmingly loved and enjoyed in France that the Sun King became jealous. So he banned its import from Holland and prompted his subjects to make their own Edam-style cheese. They made Mimolette, and everything turned out fine; but those Frenchmen probably weren’t happy about it, not at first. Hence the French Revolution.

De Gaulle

De Gaulle, who loved Mimolette and hated traitors.

Find aged Mimollete and eat it; it will be dark orange (dyed with annatto) and hard, with fruity, nutty, butterscotchy and caramely flavors. But don’t take my word for it: Charles de Gaulle loved it, and he’s a famous historical figure!

The “cannonball” shape of old Edam (and Mimolette, though it’s twice as large) entailed the use of semispherical wooden cheese forms that were also used, at some point, as Dutch riot helmets. These were the original “cheese-heads”: angry rioters. (I can’t figure out when these improvised helmets were used, precisely; but I hope it was during the Bread and Cheese Wars of the 1490s, when the Hooks battled the Cods because people were hungry.)


Dutch immigrants were called “cheese-heads” by the cruel and malicious; and many of these Dutch settled in Wisconsin. The insult continued, but the “cheese-head” was not positively associated with the Green Bay Packers until recently. A man named Ralph Bruno invented the modern cheese-head by shredding the upholstery of his mother’s couch, cutting out a triangle, burning holes in it, and painting it yellow. He wore his new cap to a Milwaukee Brewer’s game in 1987. Surprised and intrigued by the cheerful response — something like “Cool cheese-head man!” I’m sure — Bruno heard the calling of entrepreneurship, and marketing began. Bruno is now Foamation’s Father of Fromage and an object of reverence, having transformed a cruel racial insult into a silly hat.

Cheese Slang, pt 1: Woman, Cheese, and the Western World

“A dessert without cheese is like a beautiful woman with only one eye.” — Brillat-Savarin

Objectified women and barbarians

Subjects of today's post: Objectified women and barbarians


Someday soon, I’m going to make some cheese of my own — and no doubt poison myself and my household. I’ve accumulated some equipment, I’ve bought a book, I’ve started practicing the maneuvers with low-intensity dairy products. My great dream is to make soft and stinky, monastery-style cheeses.

Here’s to big dreams.

Despite what the marketers will tell you, it looks like home cheesemaking is not going to be “easy”: it requires unusual hardware, unusual ingredients, time, practice, and assiduity. It might still be “fun.” We’ll see. But one can never be too wary when promised “fun” by strangers. Consider it — as you would the Mayan prophecies of a 2012 apocalypse: keep in mind the possibility, give it a contemplative frown — but don’t count on it.


But what if you don’t have the time, or the equipment, or even the desire; and you don’t live on a farm, and you’re not a professional cheesemaker, and neither are you parents — can you still “make cheese”?

Of course. Especially if you are an attractive and flirtatious young lady. (Don’t cringe: you don’t have to lactate.)

According to old British and American slang (1840s and 50s), there is a completely non-dairy process by which ladies can “make cheese,” which is to flare out your petticoats by twirling your skirts, then promptly and sweetly sit down so that everything poofs out nice and round — round like a wheel of cheese, I guess — and everybody sighs and smiles at your winsomeness. Some old people will sigh and smile in remembrance of how they once “made cheese” in their youth. And some old people will sigh and smile because the moment of frivolity reminds them how all things are not as morose and churlish as the bogwater of their own thoughts — not until one thinks about them, at least.

Make too much cheese, though, and the boys could see your ankles, or even a little fleshy leg when the skirt rises up; and we all know what that can lead to.

Fates worse than death.

And so it did. Over the span of generations, cheese slang progressed from cheerful “cheesemaking” to forms of exhibitionism and voyeurism no longer as innocent and lighthearted as a skirt-twirl. Soon men made an activity of leeringly “checking the cheese” — browsing the streets for cuties — and they shared their discoveries with mutterings like “Nice piece of cheese,” or “Tasty piece of cheddar.” (As we know, for some time Americans tended to equate cheese with cheddar.) Then, by World War time, it had all escalated (or descended) into vulgarity: from this seductively frolicksome making of cheese (the 19th century was so precious), came “cheesecake,” which referred to the morally catastrophic photographs of ladies in erotic, and even pornographic, poses, with little or no dress for a rind.*

"Cheesecake," before the pervs got to it.

"Cheesecake," before the "pervs" got to it


And this is how cultures degrade into barbarism, some say.

Remember the Spanish proverb: “Cheese without a rind is like a maiden without shame.” A fallen maiden, that is.

As has been mentioned before, there is a certain sense, maybe a vague and inaccurate one, in which the whole Roman Empire Narrative of the West endows hard and/or ripened cheeses with the qualities of civilization, refinement, and learning (Rome), whereas soft and unaged cheeses evoke barbarian primitivism (everyone else) — until more recent centuries, at least. The Romans — especially after their conquest of Greece — made and ate a lot of cheese, of many varieties. Lucius Iunius Moderatus Columella (perhaps the Original Gentleman Farmer of the 1st c. AD) describes in De Rustica** a legion of common Roman cheeses, and documents the variety of methods by which they were made: some flavored, some unflavored, some smoked, some fresh, and many molded, pressed, and aged. It is suggested that the Romans invented the press-and-drain method of cheesemaking, as well as the process of ripening (look online here and here). I have some aversion to giving the Romans credit for everything they’re typically given credit for — just reactionary skepticism, probably. In any case, those Romans, busy-bodies that they were, significantly improved the methods of pressing and ripening.


Did Romulus and Remus make wolf's milk cheese?

At first cheese was a luxurious indulgence in Rome, but with all these technological innovations cheese became a common staple for common people, and was even carried as rations by the imperial armies. Roman styles of cheesemaking followed the spreading Empire all over the Western World; then colonies started developing their own styles, and sending them back to Rome; and everyone was happy in Europe, sharing recipes and complimenting each other, for a time. Then the Empire fell, for some reason or other, and the darkness of the Dark Ages encroached. The kind of “culture” Rome prized (most of which we still prize today) was lost on the barbarian marauders, who, once unyoked from the taming and civilizing rule of Rome, lacked the “cultivation” to carry on traditions. Every day was a new beginning for them. Or whatever. Among the lost classical arts, alongside all sorts of boring Latin rules of grammar, were Roman techniques for pressing and ripening cheese.

It was in the monasteries — at first in places like Ireland and England, then elsewhere — that Roman cheesemaking practices continued to persist and evolve; while outside those walls dirty irascible men reverted to making cream cheese in stone bowls, like stinking monkeys. Because everybody knows barbarians just don’t have the patience to ripen a good wheel. When missionaries brought the Good News back to the dark heart of the continent, building monasteries and cheering everyone up, they also returned the power to press, ripen, and otherwise perfect cheese (as discussed in this post).

And that’s how the world became the way it is today.

As you might sense, I’m aware and skeptical of the simplicity of this story; nevertheless, I’m doing what I can with the sources I can find. If anybody wants to pay me to research and write a history of cheese more thorough and definitive than those I’ve hit upon, I don’t require much. I might even do it for a few plane tickets and an unskilled house servant.

I didn’t intend such a lengthy and horrid tangent — but it had to happen sometime, heaven knows, because it involved the Romans, and the Romans always force their way in.

(This site says that the Greeks invented cheesecake long ago, and served it to their Olympic athletes at the world’s first games, in 776 BC. These athletes were buck naked the whole time, of course, just like those women in the more provocative “cheesecake” photos of the 20th century. Unfortunately, the Greeks didn’t have sugar back then, so their cheesecake doesn’t count.)


Back on topic.

I suppose that the modern freethinking man, with a little practice in the manipulation of a skirt, could “make cheese” as well as any woman. Not that his parents would be pleased; but there’s no reason to segregate these days. Still, there’s one style of cheese that no man can reproduce: the human style — insofar as baby-making can be and has been compared to cheesemaking, which I wrote about at length here.


woman's monopoly on analogical cheesemaking

The human baby: woman's monopoly on analogical cheesemaking


Before abandoning this segment on sexist cheese slang, I must mention the less complimentary metaphors binding women to cheese. It’s been brought to my attention (thank you Ms. Walman) that “cottage cheese” connotes a few less enticing feminine features, like cellulite and yeast infection discharge. (I’ve also seen cottage cheese likened to baby vomit — which makes some sense if the babies themselves are likened to soft cheeses, their curds still mixed up with some whey –) Once again, it’s the soft and unripened cheeses that are wound up with ugliness. Before it was moral ugliness, this time its physical. Either way: typical barbarian traits. Maybe my ridiculous and incomplete analysis holds, at least on one strain of our “cultural history.”


Instead of spooling out another endless post, I’m going to put off the second half of my work on the subject of cheese-connotations-and-slang for another installment. So: The next post will feature a few bits on racial slurs, and a sermon on the shortcomings of the cheesemonger based on a passage from Kierkegaard.

* A lot of this information about slang I’m drawing from Stuar Berg Flexner’s wonderful Listening To America: An Illustrated History of Words and Phrases from our Lively and Splendid Past. I found this book in a strange second-hand shop in Mountain View, Arkansas, where my friend Adam and I had driven under no pretense but to see some woods and eat some “famous pie.” There also were groups of old friends playing country music and bluegrass on every corner of the town square at sunset. Maybe they were filming a movie, that’s all I can think of.

** I read some of the preface and other random snatches, and apparently They were already complaining back then about how the Earth was old and weary and gone barren (Columella didn’t agree). Just like now. Well, everything turned out okay for the Romans, didn’t it?

Curse Cheese, and Die

Cheese consumes all but itself. — Proverb.

In the universe of glossy cheese books, gourmet food shops, and “foodie” media, there’s plenty said and written against the industrial cheese complex that mass-produces rubbery mozzarella and rindless cheddar. It’s more rare that these critics acknowledge some of the indisputably positive influences our factories and our sciences have made on cheese production. I’ve suggested already that pasteurization, acidimeters, and standardized rennet extracts — to name a few examples — bolstered the cheesemaker’s reliability. An even earlier breakthrough was in 1669, when Johann Joachim Becher first distinguished between the processes of putrefaction and fermentation. They hadn’t figured that one out yet. As you might imagine, then, the likelihood was not insignificant before the 18th century that your cheese was dangerously foul, not delightfully pungent or “just overripe.” So I think the revulsion that some of our predecessors felt for pre-modern cheese deserves mention.


The Devil's Cheesewring, a strange rock formation in Cornwall; and a timeless symbol for England's past mistrust of cheese.

The Devil's Cheesewring, a strange rock formation in Cornwall, and timeless symbol of England's past mistrust of cheese.

In much literature of the Middle Ages and early Renaissance (not all, and varying by country), cheese-in-general was considered an indigestible, unendurable, and generally abominable poison. Also, the unusual, mysterious processes of coagulation and fermentation gave cheesemaking a sort of sorcery-stigma in some areas. Perhaps there are early sources for this. I’ve found one: In his discussion of “What We Should Believe Concerning the Transformations Which Seem to Happen to Men Through the Art of Demons,” St. Augustine mentions an old Italian legend that certain wicked landladies enchanted their cheese, so that any traveler who ate it, expecting hospitality, would be transformed temporarily into a beast of burden, and forced into burdensome, beastly labor. This is hardly a threat today, but one can never be too safe, especially at Halloween-time. Never accept unwrapped cheese from strangers.

(I wonder if that whole legend isn’t a classist stab at the poor, who often ate cheese out of necessity and, surprise, labored. But I’m saving cheese class-issues for another post.)

On the indigestibility of cheese, there’s an old Suffolk ditty (very awkward, I’ll admit):

Those that made me were uncivil
They made me harder than the devil.
Knives won’t cut me, fire won’t sweat me,
Dogs bark at me, but can’t eat me.

Apparently, some people not only disliked and rejected cheese, but vehemently cursed it — even when it was popularly eaten and nutritionally necessary, not to mention economically indispensable (as in Holland, one of the most prominent early exporters of cheese). I could quote Shakespeare, but that would be tedious. In 1643, Johannes Petrus Lotichius wrote a treatise, De Casei Nequitia (On the Vileness of Cheese), that may epitomize this antagonism: he blames cheese for thousands of diseases, and pronounces color to be the only difference between cheese and common feces. He certainly didn’t receive many dinner invitations, talking like that. Lotichius may have been out of line; but even more moderate physicians tended to consider cheese unhealthy, negatively affecting the bodily humors and even the mind.

Combine cheese’s alleged invulnerability to fire, magical metamorphoses, general vileness, pestilential powers, and deleterious effects on the divine human mind, and you have a full-fledged, frighteningly potent Enemy of God.

How did the nun community react?

(I choose to talk about nuns because of a book I read called The Women in God’s Kitchen.)

Afraid of stupidity? Or stupidly superstitious?

Sor Juana: Afraid of stupidity? Or stupidly superstitious?

A Mexican nun named Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (born Juana Ramirez de Asbaje, 1648-1695) loved the taste of cheese from her early childhood. Some are born tempted, but none are born sinners. Knowing, as it was known at the time, that cheese degraded the mind, poisoned reason, hindered learning, Sor Juana Inés in devotion to God gave up the beloved food forever. Like many monastics, she considered the pursuit of learning vital to her vocation on earth, in this life; therefore, although cheese might be delicious, that pleasure would only ensnare her in the World and stunt her spiritual growth, by making her stupider.

It was very brave of Sor Juana to give up cheese, and we are all very proud of her.


Quick everybody! Jesus' hurt!

Quick everybody! Jesus is hurt!

Another nun of the same generation, on another continent, encountered the opposite test of faith. Margaret Mary Alacoque (1647-1690, French) is known by now for her vision of the Sacred Heart of Christ: the image of Jesus’ heart stuck with a crown of thorns. In these latter days, we can witness that vision on innumerable scented candles and tattooed bodies in any urban area — to everyone’s spiritual benefit — but in those times of horse-drawn wagons, a lady had to endure intense ascetic penance, prompting a once-in-a-lifetime mystical ecstasy, just to catch a moment’s glimpse. (Margaret Mary was not the first to bear witness to the thorn-crowned heart: the cult has roots in early Christianity. But she certainly served as instigator and icon for the modern movement, which was at first considered heretical, then approved, then became mainstream only after the 18th century.)

In tension with the trends of globalization and specialization that define our era, some people are adopting low-tech and do-it-yourself approaches to many of the problems that factories and alienated laborers have already “solved” for us. It’s a cottage industry of its own: How to do everything yourself (while keeping your continued reliance on the infrastructure of modern industry in the background, if that happens to hamper your moral pride). You can bake your own bread, make your own cheese, tune-up your own bicycle, sew your own clothes — can you have your own vision of the Sacred Heart of Christ? How did Margaret Mary do it? And how can we do it ourselves?

It may be impossible for all but God to define the causality involved in any Vision of God; but we do know that Margaret Mary sought hers through old fashioned spiritual trials. And we do know that one of her greatest spiritual trials was, believe it, the eating of cheese. Unlike Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Margaret Mary Alacoque loathed cheese with violent passion. (Maybe at the time they were making better cheese in Mexico than in France?) Her whole family loathed cheese. This hatred brought them together, no doubt; even when Mommy got grumpy or Daddy didn’t feel like talking, at least they could agree that cheese was disgusting. When Margaret Mary entered the nunnery, her brother insisted that her religious contract include a stipulation protecting her against unwilling consumption of cheese.

Margaret Mary Alacoque (looking her most contrite): “I will pledge my life to you, O Lord, to be thy humble wife and servant for the remainder of my days. But only if you keep your stinky French cheeses away from me.”

(God bunches his eyebrows, confused.)

Whether it was sorority-style hazing or genuine spiritual guidance, Margaret Mary’s superior did ask the young nun to eat cheese. It had to happen. A three day struggle internal ensued. What to do? With the eyes of God and all the holy choirs of angels, saints, unbaptized infants, and patriarchs on her, what could Margaret Mary do? Catherine of Siena drank down a bowl of pus to demonstrate her piety. Could Margaret Mary eat cheese?

After those three days of spiritual trial — her own temptation in the desert — Margaret Mary prayed for three or four hours, pleading for strength — her own Gethsemane.

Margaret Mary Alacoque (bleeding from every pore): “Lord, let this cheese pass from me.”

(God rubs his forehead, bemused, glances over at Jesus, who shrugs.)

And then, at last, she ate the cheese. And Satan wept.

(“Eat the cheese.” should become a new motivational motto. Child (perched on high-dive, crying): “I can’t do it mom! I’m really scared! I think I’m gonna get hurt!” Mother (on the deck, irritated, drinking from a hidden flask): “Oh shut up and eat the cheese!”)

The trial was as horrible as Margaret Mary imagined it would be, or so she claimed. Nevertheless — no: As a result, the future saint continued to eat cheese every day for eight years, in order to practice the Christian art of unconditional love. Epicurus be damned. (Jesus slaps his forehead and groans. God sighs.) Through these long years of suffering, Margaret Mary developed, in her own words, an “insatiable hunger for humiliations and mortifications, even though my natural sensitivity suffers from them intensely.” Still, there was a payoff — besides, in my mind, the daily cheese. Because of all the “pain,” her visions and ecstasies — the Lord’s graces, they were called — magnified and proliferated. Maybe we wouldn’t have our modern Cult of the Sacred Heart if Margaret Mary Alacoque hadn’t pulled up her socks, quit whining, and eaten the cheese.

And maybe you too can witness the Sacred Heart, if only you eat the cheese you loathe most.


Daniel Defoe came for the Stilton, stayed for the cheese mites.

Daniel Defoe came for the Stilton, stayed for the cheese mites.

I have one more anecdote about disgusting premodern cheese that I’d like to share; and I’ll wriggle in a little history of a specific cheese.

Stilton (whose “home” is here) is one of the triumvirate of famous European blues, along with Roquefort and Gorgonzola. It’s much more modern than the others, however, first referred to as late as 1722 in William Stukeley’s Itinerarium Curiosum. From there the record is twisted by legends and, probably, competitive lies. So here’s just one version of it. (I probably should have consulted this History of Stilton Cheese before I wrote; but a library can only give so much, and man is finite.)

Lady Beaumont of Quenby Hall, in the English Midlands, wrote down her housekeeper’s recipe for a uniquely stunning blue-veined cheese; and the cheese was a hit, soon marketed as Quenby Cheese, or Beaumont’s Cheese, to nearby towns like Stamford and Leicester. (If I didn’t have to go to work tomorrow, I’d find a map and look up the English geography.) This housekeeper, Elizabeth Scarbrow, had a daughter, Francis Pullet; and this Pullet worked at an inn owned by her kinsman, Cooper Thornhill; and Thornhill’s inn was called the Bell Inn; and the Bell Inn was in Stilton, where Pullet made a name for her mother’s blue cheese. There’s the connection, hence the name. The inn resided along the Great North Road and so had no trouble attracting business and making its signature cheese famous.

In 1772, the author Daniel Defoe stopped at the inn and wrote of the renowned wonder, the King of English Cheeses:

it is called our English Parmesan and brought to the table with mites so thick around it they bring a spoon for you to eat the mites with, as you do the cheese.

If that’s not revolting, nothing is.

Some of you may have heard of a tradition in which port is poured over Stilton. Some of you may think this is Fine Dining in Old World Style. It is not — though it is Old World. The English used to pour port over Stilton in order to kill the mites and maggots that infested every wheel. Whether those English scraped those dead mites away or ate them with Defoe’s mite-spoon, I can’t say.

Next time you try Stilton, think of that. Think of maggots and rot; think of your cheese as a corpse. Next time you try Stilton, think of death.

(And this is my first attempt to explicate the cryptic proverb, “Cheese consumes all but itself.” There will be more.)

Holy Cheese and Holy Men: Swiss, Irish, Japanese

“True believers may be likened to those mites in the cheese which eat their way into it, and penetrate into the centre by feeding upon all that lies in their way as they advance. We eat our way into the word of God, we live upon what we learn, tunnelling through the truth with receptive minds.” — Spurgeon

I want to draw attention to some lovely pictures of Swiss alpine cheesemaking.

There’s a website called FX Cuisine, composed by a Swiss polyglot and gourmand named François-Xavier (FX). It seems that Mr. FX likes to make food, photograph it, and write little captions for his pictures. He also like to take pictures of other people making food; and he tours around quite a bit to document European foods concocted in alarmingly enticing settings. Recently, he photographed the skinning, butchering, and whole-roasting of a wild boar, in medieval style, over an open fire in an old stone French castle. Without the fine work of Mr. FX, some of us would die without ever having seen a senescent castle dog barking at a gutted corpse of wild boar that dangles head-down from the stone wall, blood dropping among windstrewn flower petals and dust.

Some of us still might.

Mr. FX lives on Lake Geneva, so he has the chance to visit some Swiss alpine dairies as they make their summer cheeses. (Take a look at the beginning of my earlier post, “Taleggio and the ‘Foul Sloth’ of Avignon,” for some words on alpine summer cheese.) I’ve seen two of his photojournalistic pieces on this process: Swiss Alps Cheesemaking and Hard Core Swiss Vacherin Cheese. I recommend that you look at them, if only for a moment. Both entries show cheese made in gargantuan copper cauldrons over open flames; cooked, drained, and pressed all in cluttered, humble mountain chalets.

(The enormous kettles that hang from swiveling wooden mini-cranes were around, like most of the technology you’ll see in those pieces, long before the industrial era.)

I don’t expect that cheese made on this scale is exported to the U.S. But maybe. There’s a lot more to Swiss cheese than I know about; but I do know some things. Here they are:


Steve Jenkins, in his Cheese Primer, tells us that “the people who made the earliest Swiss cheeses over a thousand years ago were called Sennen, meaning ‘mountain people.'” Despite a little effort — all I have to give — I’ve not been able to corroborate the existence of this ancient cheesemaking people called Sennen. Though his book is impressively long, sometimes I just can’t trust Steve Jenkins. Not surprised.

(I was able to confirm the existence of ancient ascetics called sennen; but they lived in Japan, and I doubt they invented Swiss cheese. Who knows. According to The Oxford Essential Dictionary of Foreign Terms in English, the sennen [also spelled “sennin,” and probably a lot of other transliterations] are wise old men of the mountains that have attained, by discipline and meditation, magical powers and immortality.)

Maybe a sennen, maybe nobody.

Maybe a sennen, maybe nobody.


Another source, Judy Ridgway’s Cheese Companion: The Connoisseur’s Guide, makes the more extraordinary and verifiable claim that

Many centuries before the birth of Christ, the Celtic ancestors of the Swiss used to make cheese in rough vessels slung over wood fires, cutting and stirring the curds with branches of pine. The resultant cheese had a tough rind which was impenetrable enough to thwart the ravages of both time and the weather.

The Celtic Helvetians had settled into what-is-now-Switzerland by the 2nd century BC; and a couple of centuries later Pliny the Elder wrote of their cheese, caseus helveticus. So maybe Ridgway alludes to them. Many consider Pliny’s comment the first historical reference to Swiss cheese; and many consider that specific cheese to have been what is now called Sbrinz.

Sbrinz is a piquant and powerful cheese, mighty enough that Middle Age doctors, doing the best they could, prescribed doses of it to cure illness — as some Russians still prescribe vodka. (Max MacCalman, author of a more recent Connoisseur’s Guide to cheese, compares your first taste of Sbrinz to “first beholding the Grand Canyon” because of the cheese’s ability to “cause sensory overload.” I haven’t been able to buy Sbrinz yet myself — I might have to order some on the Internet — but consider me somewhat skeptical: or less of a cheese connoisseur than Max: or more of a canyon connoisseur: or just dull.) During an extraordinarily protracted two to four and a half years of aging, the flavors of Sbrinz condense and amplify, the paste hardens and crystallizes, so that the cheese is generally used for grating, like Parmiggiano Reggiano — but its creamier and less salty than Reggiano, I’ve heard. In fact, let the heaven’s shake, it’s been suggested that early Roman legionnaires carried Sbrinz back to the Seven Hills of Rome and on the way Sbrinz served as the originary inspiration for Parmiggiano Reggiano. I’m sure there have been bloodsplattered squabbles over a boast like that.

not quite as attractive on his coin as Thomas Jefferson.

Antoninus: not quite as attractive on his coin as Thomas Jefferson.

Whether or not the Swiss (or Helvetians) deserve that lofty point of pride, they can at least boast of killing a Roman Emperor, a good deed anybody ought to be proud of. Except that this one seemed to be decent, mostly. The reign of Emperor Antoninus Pius — aka Antonin the Pious, aka Imperator Caesar Titus Aelius Hadrianus Antoninus Augustus Pontifex Maximus — was the most peaceful in all the Principate (the period from Augustus through the 3rd century AD). He did not leave Rome much, did not bother extending the domains, pillaging for sport, disciplining the conquered, or slaying whomever he pleased in the palace. Still — as one legend has it — death struck from without, unforeseen; and this meek ruler suffered one of the Barbarians’ first blows: for he was stricken with fever and died after gorging himself beyond wisdom on delicious, delicious Swiss cheese.

Sbrinz comes in 88 pound wheels made with 110 gallons of Brown Swiss milk. Which is very large. I wonder how far Antoninus made it into his — although his wheel may not have been that big, because says the practice of making gigantic Swiss cheeses didn’t come about till the Middle Ages, as a way of circumventing pay-per-cheese tolls on the highways. Others have suggested that the huge wheels are emblems of cooperative living and farsighted planning for rough winters. I don’t know. But I do know that Emmental (much more widely produced than Sbrinz in the modern era; the source of what everyone glibly calls “Swiss”) comes in 175-220 pound wheels the size of tractor tires. I write that, but even I don’t believe it. To make one wheel of Emmental requires a day’s milk from six to eight herds of ten to fifteen cows each. Mr. FX’s simple and lonesome cheesemakers were not making Sbrinz or Emmental, I suppose, no matter how big their copper kettles.


Christ and his monkish follower. Neither seems pleased.

Christ and his monkish follower. Neither seems pleased.

Another fantastic Swiss cheese is called Appenzeller, and it originated at the Abbey of St. Gallen in northeastern Switzerland. This abbey was founded in 616 AD by St. Gallus, a disciple of St. Columbanus; and the cheese must have been birthed soon after, in time to be praised by His Holy Roman Highness Emperor Charlemagne himself (a famous praiser of cheese, 747-814 AD). It was the Irish Columbanus (540-615 AD) who instigated the re-conversion of Europe, after Christianity had faded with the decline of the Roman Empire. During the darkest of the Dark Ages, the culture and the learning of classical and Christian civilization were briefly detoured, cloistered up in isolated Irish monasteries; and so were the accrued accomplishments in cheesemaking. The Barbarians went back to mushy cheeses and worse: butter and cream. Yes, they lived like hogs. When Columbanus left Ireland on his peregrinatio — a self imposed, missionary exile for the sake of the Church — he founded monasteries all over Europe, and carried with him some Irish monastic discipline, some of the culture of Rome (and of Greece, through Rome), and much of the know-how to make good hard cheese.

To accomplish all this, Columbanus had to leave his poor mother back at home on the island, though she didn’t want him to go, not at all. “His mother’s prostrate body the fiery Columbanus in holy zeal bestrode,” wrote James Joyce in Ulysses. So in the heat of righteous zeal and the sorrow of neglected motherlove the monastic cheeses of the mainland were born, at last, in the province of Appenzell and elsewhere.

These famous hard Swiss cheeses — and let’s add Swiss Gruyère to the list — are all cooked, pressed, lightly salted, and brushed as they age. Appenzeller is brushed with a potent blend of pepper, herbs, and white wine or cider that makes for a taste uniquely fruity and tangy. Leave it to the monks for that kind of panache, I guess. Sbrinz is rubbed with oil.


The Swiss today have developed some sort of wondrous agricultural system that I don’t know much of anything about yet, except that they seem able to retain a lot of stunningly pastoral landscape while still doing what must be done to stay alive and make wonderful cheese. The Swiss system of name protection is especially strict, its standards especially high; and the result is a nation with fewer cheese-names than Italy or France, but perhaps a greater reputation for consistent excellence. By law, Swiss cheese is always produced on the small-scale of regional co-ops — some still-operational co-ops predate the Swiss Federation — and the milk is always fresh as a weeping bloody umbilicized babe, just hours out of the teat.

Have you been wondering why some Swiss cheese has holes in it? Well, well, curious soul: bacteria, like people, sometimes fart; and when cheese bacteria fart, they create the vacated regions you notice on your slice — just as friends flee your own gassy toots. Look at The Straight Dope’s answer to this question for more satisfaction. Holes are going out of style, it seems; so you might not want to bother thinking about them. Lord knows there’s a lot to think about.

The kettle, the fire, the cheese.

The kettle, the fire, the cheese.

Lies, Incest, Heresy, and the Miracle of the Cheese Baby

Hast thou not poured me out like milk and curdled me like cheese? — Job 10:10

The Lord of Flies pours out his milk. Job weeps.

Blake's Lord of Flies pours out his sour milk. Blake's Job weeps.

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:


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.


Aristotle the Babbler teaches Alexander the Mass-Murderer.

Aristotle the Babbler teaches Alexander the Mass-Murderer.

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.]

Lots and his daughters spoiling thier cheese.

Lot and his daughters "overcooking the cheese."

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.


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:

A Basque shepherd molding his Baby Cheese in the perfect image of the Jesus Cheese

A Basque "housewife" molding his Baby Cheese in the image of the perfect, immaculately coagulated Jesus Cheese

Factory cheese, Artisan cheese, Grayson

O, he is as tedious
As a tired horse, a railing wife;
Worse than a smoky house: I had rather live
With cheese and garlic in a windmill, far,
Than feed on cates and have him talk to me
In any summer-house in Christendom.
— Hotspur, in
King Henry IV, Part I


Dr. Pasteur"ization" doing science.

Dr. Pasteur"ization" doing science.

Jesse Williams started his New York cheddar factory — the forerunner of all cheese factories — in 1851. That was before Louis Pasteur began heating milk to slay harmful bacteria and regularize the product (in 1857); before Christian Ditlev Ammentorp Hansen extracted a standardized rennet enzyme from calf-stomach (in 1872); it was before F. J. Lloyd created the acidimeter test, which measures milk’s acidity at any point in the cheesemaking process, again improving results (in 1899); and before Orla-Jensen isolated pure “starter cultures” of select microorganisms, to replace the unreliable sour milk and whey starters of ages past (in 1919). In sum: The factory took stage just on the cusp of cheesemaking’s slide into “science” — at a time when commoners still measured milk heat with elbows.

(If you don’t understand the cheesemaking process enough to respect these innovations, here’s a good summary. I will write my own soon, maybe even for the next post. I’m full of empty promises and inconstant ambition.)

Following Williams, cheese in the U.S. and Europe became increasingly industrialized and precise. Generally, all the breakthroughs above decreased waste and minimized failure. Contrary to the millenarian tirades of hippies and malcontents, science did work a little magic for the common man. In the old days failure-rate was high for cheesemaking, even in monasteries, where God’s Own Watchful Eye was always on alert. And yet (as Juliet Harbutt notes) such disappointments were more often blamed on some dairymaid’s menstrual cycle than on sour milk or careless handling. Many things can go wrong when making cheese, and some significant portion of those things might be out of the cheesemaker’s control, especially when the cheesemaker’s a premodern peasant. In that sense cheese is like love, or empire building. It took some real dirty hard science before people stopped blaming vaginal discharge, witchcraft, and Jewry for bunk cheeses. I guess I consider that progress.

It is true, though — to the credit of purists — that the more industrialized cheese became, the more insipid it got (and might continue to get). It seems that American factory cheese accepted from the beginning a certain subordinate status, along with a more lowbrow, “philistine” or “utilitarian” audience. For instance: An 1867 report from the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture documents the defects in American factory cheese, namely, “porosity and bad flavor”; suggests that foul milk with a “fetid and sickening odor” is the primary culprit, no thanks to New England’s unfortunate climate; and then offers the economizing solution that we improve our cheese just enough to appeal to England’s bottom-feeders. And in the New York Times’s coverage of the 1878 dairy fair, the paper reports that American cheeses of more-than-substandard-caliber were entering the world market under false European names — “to the great detriment of our reputation for fine production, though, possibly, to the present profit of middlemen and commission houses.”

But skipping to the present: Only the obtuse fanatic or wild dog would claim that factory cheesemakers have paid no attention over the years to quality. Still, the current inrush of “artisanal” American cheeses presents a totally different approach: blending organic and cosmopolitan food movements, this cheese trend is achieving levels of quality once restricted to sparse European imports. Some “artisanal” makers simply want to make the best cheese they can, while still remaining viable. Some want to slip into this emergent niche market, seizing the hearts and minds of the well-to-do. Most, however, seem to be more preoccupied with general “green food” issues, like sustainability, organicism, local markets, and so on (look at brochures from Whole Foods or your area Farmer’s Market for more keywords).


The Feete pair at Meadow Creek Dairy make a cheese that epitomizes that greenish side of American artisan cheese. I suggest you try it, if you can. It comes in squares instead of wheels, and it is called Grayson. The name might pay homage to Amanda Grayson, mother of Star Trek‘s Spock, or to Dick Grayson, the Christian-civilian name for Batman’s sidekick Robin. I can only speculate.

Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson, in disguise.

Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson, in disguise.

After 15 years on their dairy farm in southwest Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, the Feete(s?) started making cheese out of their milk. They were motivated by fluctuating dairy prices and the benefits of adding value to their product on the farm — not an unusual origin-story for American artisanal cheesemakers. Their Jersey herd spurts richer milk than common Holsteins (though less of it); the cows graze on rotational pastures free of pesticides and herbicides, and never eat silage; and they’re only milked seasonally, according to the ebbs and flows of the lady-cow cycle. (As a result, this cheese, aged 4 months, is only available from June to March.) All this makes for substantial and flavorful raw milk cheeses; but also — and this is part of the point — cheeses with some kind of moral integrity.

Grayson recently won two major awards at the American Cheese Society‘s 2008 Conference: runner-up for Best in Show, and first place for Farmstead Cow’s Milk Cheese. Not insubstantial, if you’re into cheese awards. I’m posting on Grayson because of the second award. “Farmstead” means that all of the production is done in one place, on one farm: the grass grows, the beasts eat, they are milked, the milk is cheesed, the cheese is aged. There is a strictly culinary appeal to this purity, since the farmstead cheesemaker has absolute control over his or her product, from beginning to end. No “fetid and sickening odors” will slip past the cheesemaker who doubles as dairy farmer. In fact, some American artisans earn reputations for fussiness and perfectionism — only accepting milk when the pastures are prime, for example. (Uplands Cheese, producer of Pleasant Ridge Reserve, is often cited as a quintessential American “designer” cheese.) In addition, on the “ethical” end, no unwelcome practice will taint the moral valor of the cheese, less petroleum is consumed, dada dada dada.

(Yes, weep, for such finely tuned farmstead cheeses can be very, very expensive. Happily, Grayson is on the cheaper end of the spectrum.)

Another reason I pinpointed Grayson was to juxtapose it with Taleggio. (To see my prior post on Taleggio, click here.) It’s a standard refrain in cheesewriting that there are few true American originals: most of the cheese here derives too directly from some “ancestor” cheese in Europe. (Jack, Colby, and Brick are three accepted originals that I can think of, off the cuff.). It’s a strange evolutionary logic I don’t quite approve — but this is no place for “positions,” not now. Many artisanal cheeses are also “inspired” by old European winners; and in this respect, Grayson follows Taleggio. Grayson is also a washed-rind cows milk cheese that attains a silky, dense, custard texture without gooing out too much. Grayson and Taleggio look similar, too — pale yellow paste (the interior, non-rind of a cheese), orange rind — and with real handmade cheese appearance can indicate a lot about what the cheese is and how it tastes. You can eat both rinds, and both rinds taste like wet sand.

Eating the two cheeses, however, will reveal enough differences to justify coexistence. Grayson has a more odorous rind: more sand, seaweed, and sewage. The inside smells sweeter, openly milky, with a little fruit and a little more sock. From a small distance I smell ripe banana. (Why am I smelling this cheese from a distance? What happened?) The taste takes longer to warm up on your tongue; then there’s more tartness, more sweetness — higher tones — and perhaps less range than Taleggio. Grayson also tasted like poultry to me, full grown cocks and hens, whereas I only remember the eggs in Taleggio. These are worldly wonders.

Goat and background included for scale.

Grayson: goat and background included for scale.

The Original American Cheese, plus Anecdotes

“The history of the world is the discipline of the uncontrolled natural will, bringing it into obedience to a universal principle and conferring subjective freedom.” — Hegel

“Progress might have been alright once but it has gone on too long.” — Ogden Nash

(To quiet complaints about the last long post, I’ve broke this one into smaller sections, each with a heading. I hope it “feels” like several small, acceptable posts, even if it is really one large, unacceptable post.)


The culmination of . . .

The culmination of . . . ?

As far as I know, none of the Native Americans were cheesemaking people. They had other things to do; so there are no “ancient” American cheeses. And nobody’s suggested to me that pilgrim cheesemakers, colonial cheesemakers, or settler cheesemakers felt compelled to creatively experiment with their medium, not for the better, at least. Cheeses and recipes were brought from overseas, and cheeses were made at home, sold in smalltime markets. Cheddar was the big thing. It seems to have been a practical cheese, then as now: manageable despite the volatile New England climate, which defeated most cheeses. By 1790 American cheddars were exported back to England, the original motherland of the breed (which is not so much named after the town of Cheddar as the Cheddar Gorge, a tourist attraction since the 18th century that gathered hungry crowds and popularized the local cheese). Before the curious single-serving packets now called “American Cheese,” Brits called imported U.S. cheddar “American cheese,” or “Yankee cheese.” Americans called it “yellow cheese” and “store cheese,” sometimes “applepie cheese.”

Too much cheddar for the man on the nickel!

Too much cheese for the man on the nickel!

The Brits looked down on Yankee cheese. But Americans were doing their best, probably; and sometimes they even felt pride in their yellow cheese. For example: the people of Cheshire Massachusetts once made a 1235-pound, 4-foot by 15-inch cheddar and gave it to President Thomas Jefferson, for inspiration I suppose. That was in 1802. They inscribed on the rind one of Jefferson’s famous slogans: “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.” They wrote that on a cheese. The pastor that orchestrated the Mammoth Cheese‘s creation, Elder John Leland, assured Jefferson that none of the milk was made by any slaves, or Federalists — since this cheese was also a political gesture. Leland thought it was the best damn cheese ever made. I imagine Jefferson was nonplussed.

(Andrew Jackson was awarded a cheese to match Jefferson’s in 1845. The cheesemakers wanted to assert that Jackson deserved Jefferson’s “every honor” and more — even cheese honors. [For more on White House cheeses, look here.] And in 1890 a couple of British villages made a 1250-pound, 9-foot-diameter cheddar and gave it to Queen Victoria, who no doubt envied Jefferson’s cheese as much as Jackson did.)

Some claim that Jefferson, thanks to Cheshire’s brief madness, was the first man of authority dubbed The Big Cheese. Another authority suggests that the phrase comes first from the Persian or Urdu word chiz, for “thing,” which the English picked up in India. The imperialists started calling things cheeses, with a positive connotation; so by 1890 they were calling big things big cheeses. Jefferson was indeed a big thing in his day; but he may have been a little early for the epithet.


Google Books found me an issue of the British Penny Magazine of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge from March 12, 1842, which features an article on “American Cheese” of the time. It contains, not surprisingly, some useful knowledge on the subject. Here’s an excerpt:

“The characteristics of American cheeses consist in their greater diameter or breadth in proportion to their thickness; in their possessing their natural colour, little or no artificial colouring being employed; in their being full of holes or eyes; in possessing a pungent or rather bitter taste, and in a bandage of linen or cotton cloth being passed round their outward rim. In some matters the Americans have adopted modes and customs different from ours and from those of other countries, and by no means superior to those they have rejected or altered. [I do appreciate the passive aggressive condescension of that deliberately overgeneral sentence.] Cheese-making may be considered one of those; and, as a consequence, they produce a quality of cheese decidedly inferior to our own.”

The author also blames American inferiority on a climate too extreme for cheese, and on misplaced priorities that valued salt and, above all, speed (in coagulation, curd breaking, and pressing) over finished quality.


So maybe Americans didn’t successfully innovate or stake out a cultural niche with cheese, until later — until 1851, when Jesse Williams established the America’s first cheese factory in New York — possibly the first “modern”/industrial cheese factory in the world. (Arguably, cooperative American systems were already practiced in other areas — in 1841, for instance, after the People of Wisconsin “had arrived at that point of refinement when they longed for cheese” and banded together to serve that cause [see Pickett] . But Jesse Williams gets the credit and none of us have the time to research and debate it.) Jesse Williams’ father was a famously good cheesemaker, but fate had condemned young Jesse to meager talent in the trade. Jesse was living under a shadow, shaming his maker; so he conceived the cheese factory as a means of still collaborating in business with his father. Which is touching. There is Disney-movie potential in this story. With his factory, Jesse was able to buy up milk from many local dairy herds, mix it all together with his own and his father’s, and churn out extra-large cheeses that were more uniform, consistent, and economic. Of course his factory made cheddar. It changed everything.


From there, today’s Standard American Cheese Tale, as culled from glossy books and internet sites, goes like this: America’s main cheesemaking-innovation was mass production, efficiency: Williams’ factory-style cheese. The States were the vanguard of the Great Industrialization that then swept Europe, and with the help of two World Wars crippled, bludgeoned, all but garroted traditional cheesemaking culture — in part, for a time. During the Dark Ages of American Prosperity the Forces of Darkness strengthened their grip on the cheesesoul of the people; Americans were eating plastic scraps and used car parts and calling it food; given a few more decades they would have gladly consumed raw cancer boiled in turpentine, if nothing stopped them . . . culture and decency rotted and ruined, the human spirit severed from its source . . . Until 60s counterculture at last declared everything like that wrong, evil, Mammon- or Moloch-ish. And then those movements promoting organic, local, sustainable food began gathering their followings. 80s affluence encouraged creative-types to buy farms and experiment, the fervor caught on; and so it is that now we have a fabulous artisanal cheese culture coming into its own. It’s up to our generation to spread the good news and carry on the work.

Yes, it’s a suspiciously messianic tale that twists some undeniable truths, and so standardized that the discriminating cynic must suspect it’s some large fraction myth — but I don’t know right now, and I won’t take a stand on it  — maybe later — I’m not here now to take stands — I’m unsure what I’m here to do — I was supposed to write about Grayson still. And I will, but I was sidetracked. So:

Next time on “After Cheese Comes Nothing”: Posts on St. Hildegard, Taleggio, and American cheesemaking culminate in a single anticlimactic post on Grayson, an artisanal American washed-rind cheese from Virginia.


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