Archive for the 'Cheese History' Category



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:

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

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.

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:

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

Advertisements

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

THE GIFT OF SCIENCE

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).

GRAYSON AT LAST

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 ORIGINAL AMERICAN CHEESE

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.

IMPERIAL SNOBBERY AND AMERICAN IMPATIENCE

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.

THE YANKS CHANGE CHEESE FOREVER

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.

THE FALL AND REDEMPTION OF MAN, REPLAY

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.

Taleggio, and the “Foul Sloth” of Avignon

The voice of life and salvation says: Why will a person eat of some cheese and still wish to remain ignorant of the nature of that cheese?

“He who distinguishes the true savor of his food can never be a glutton; he who does not cannot be otherwise.” — Thoreau

Of Alpine Cheeses

While common wisdom might claim that cattle prefer flat lush lowlands that pamper their bulk, leaving the rough spots and steep slopes for more agile, rugged, stoic ruminants, in fact not all cows just frown and moo at a little exertion. The Alps, severe as they are, have long harbored dairy-based, cattle-rearing cultures, whose herds make seasonal migrations up and downhill in rhythm with the blossom and fade of mountain meadows (they call these vertical movements transhumance). With the rampant abundance of high-altitude springtime and summer — after the great white burden has lifted — with grasses, flowers, and herbs all ripe and exuberant — then these hardy bovine breeds enjoy some of the most delicious pastures in the world; and they make from it, in the mystery of their bowels, some of that same world’s most coveted milk. By creating hard mountain cheeses like Beaufort, Comté, Gruyère, or just about everything Swiss, the cattlemen transform this rich milk into massive, sturdy wheels that last them through brutal and snowdrenched and stark alpine winters.*

But this post is not about those hard cheeses, or, per the footnote, those godless alpine marmots. It is about a softer and stinkier cheese of the Alps.

Taleggio

This is hero cheese.

This is hero cheese.

On the Italian side of the Alps there are also cows; and when transhumance-ing herds make their autumnal journey down from the peaks to more temperate fields, they are still milked on the way, and cheese is still made. Lombard dialect calls these cows stracche — tired — and the family of cheese made from such weary beast teats is called stracchino. One member of this lineage, our chosen cheese for now, is Taleggio: ancient, lusty, pungent, and meaty. (Another famous one is Gorgonzola, reserved for a future post.)

So Taleggio is made in and named for the Val Taleggio, which is gouged out of mountainside by the River Enna (“val” being Italian for valley). Here’s a map I drew:

Handmade!

Until the late 19th century, Taleggio was all made in the Val, but since then factory cheesemaking has taken some commercial production downhill and out of Lombardy to parts of Piedmont and Venetia. The method, standardized over centuries and awarded D.O.P. (Denominazione di Origine Protetta) protection in 1996, goes something like this: Curds are left uncooked and cut large, hazlenut-size, contributing to a velvet-cream texture; they are turned and cut again, then heated gently in square molds for up to a day before aging. While they mature in conditions that mimic the humid cool caves of the Val, the rinds are washed weekly with brine. Thirty to forty days of aging bring the cheese-squares to an edible ripeness. That’s not long (which is why raw milk Taleggio is illegal in the US, where raw cheeses must be aged at least 60 days), and they can stand to sit some more: the flavors will intensify from moderately tart, with a Swiss-like tang, to deep, rounded, and beefy. The smell also intensifies, even more dramatically, to furnish at its fullness a pungency too robust for the faint of spirit and weak of will.

Taleggio’s redolence of rain-wet grass and body odor, cooked greens and baking bread results from the brine washings, which clean some bacteria off the rind but also foster the growth of Brevibacterium linens, the characteristic infection of washed-rind cheeses — what makes them stink well and colors them orange. (More on that category to come, sometime). A particular blend of yeast, molds, and bacteria flourish on this rind; they come to sweeten the cheese, and break down proteins and fats to make for a doughy thick smoothness. The best Taleggio I’ve known has a wonderfully balanced, complex and lasting flavor: some fresh salt and tang mellowed, widened and warmed by grass and meat flavors, some scrambled egg, a slight sourness on the swallow, a fruity aftertaste.

Very <i>stracche</i> people and animals crossing the Alps with Hannibal.

Very stracche (tired) people and animals crossing the Alps with Hannibal.

Some of my sources claim that Taleggio is old enough to have been mentioned by Cicero, Cato, and Pliny. The rest, more conservative, probably more accurate, report that it was birthed to human hands somewhere between the 9th and 11th centuries. While medieval washed-rined cheeses are generally associated with monasteries — ironically, the monkish charge of cleanliness bred such strange new bacteria, o how symbolic — I haven’t found anything to indicate that Taleggio was another monastic innovation. Well then, what kind of person ate Taleggio?

In case you need more reason to consume this cheese, know that you will place yourself in the company of well-cultured aristocracy. My limited research finds Taleggio at the tables of two glorious medieval feasts. It was served for the wedding celebration of Francesco Sforza and Bianca Maria Visconti in 1411. (These names should mean nothing to you; so here’s a good line on Sfroza from Machiavelli’s Prince: “Francesco Sforza, through being martial, from a private person became Duke of Milan; and [his] sons, through avoiding hardships and troubles of arms, from dukes became private persons.” Now you’re educated.) Taleggio also appeared, a little earlier, at the coronation of Pope Clement VI in 1344.

Pope and Culinary Sophisticate Clement VI

Culinary sophisticate, Pope Clement VI

Like other Avignon popes, Clement VI appreciated and encouraged deliciousness in food and drink. He did not claim perfection or even sainthood, just lived, in his own words, “as a sinner among sinners,” more of a statesman than an infallible mouthpiece of God. Still it seems he worked few fine deeds in his time: in addition to eating and serving Taleggio, he was renowned for reliably sumptuous generosity (sumptuous enough to gobble through the papal treasury); he condemned the massacres of Jews that were becoming widespread after the outbreak of plague in 1348-9; he issued a Bull against the creepy, proliferating groups of traveling Flagellants, labeling their leaders “masters of error”; and he patronized art and learning, like any decent aristocrat.

Nevertheless, the luxuriousness of Clement’s Avignon lifestyle has irritated some critics, ancient and modern, and provoked vicious tirades. I’ll quote two here — because these are the kinds of quotations I live for. First, Petrarch, in a letter, sometime, wrote of Clement’s Avignon:

Instead of holy solitude we find a criminal host and crowds of the most infamous satellites; instead of soberness, licentious banquets; instead of pious pilgrimages, preternatural and foul sloth; instead of the bare feet of the apostles, the snowy coursers of brigands fly past us, the horses decked in gold and fed on gold, soon to be shod with gold, if the Lord does not check this slavish luxury. In short, we seem to be among the kings of the Persians or Parthians, before whom we must fall down and worship, and who cannot be approached except presents be offered. O ye unkempt and emaciated old men, is it for this you labored? Is it for this that you have sown the field of the Lord and watered it with your holy blood? But let us leave the subject.

I have been so depressed and overcome that the heaviness of my soul has passed into bodily affliction, so that I am really ill and can only give voice to sighs and groans. (Quoted from The Petrarchan Grotto.)

Next, a modern outcry: the first item on a list of crimes intended to place Clement VI among the 10 Most Evil People of the 14th Century CE:

Pope Clement VI during the massive death and misery of the world did celebrate by continuing endless drug fuelled sex parties and great banquets of the finest food.

I’m pleased to assume that one such “finest food” was Taleggio; and it speaks to the wonders of the modern world that peasants like us can now enjoy the same grand cheese that played some part in those famed excesses of Avignon.

(If it matters to you, the New Catholic Encyclopedia, 2nd edition, states quite baldly that “the incriminations against [Clement VI’s] moral conduct are unfounded.” Let our consciences rest.)

(Posts won’t all be this long in the future. It’s just that right now I’m unemployed.)

* Of Marmots

Concerning the brutality of alpine winters: I think David Attenborough once taught me that alpine marmots have adapted to the endless freeze by becoming some of the most cruel creatures on earth (although still not comparable, of course, of course, to humans and parasites — two beasts that convinced Mark Twain to hate God). These marmots must hibernate in little marmot-holes while the snow is out; and since those winters are so dreadfully long, they must be careful to keep just the right balance of huddled occupants, or else all of them could die. Spring comes, the marmots see the sun and all get frisky. But mother-marmot must be pragmatic, so, in accordance with Satan’s will, if any of her daughters get pregnant with a baby that the hole might not support — *gasp* — mother-marmot beats the poor daughter into bloody, unhappy miscarriage. Thank the stars that global warming might yet extinguish these monsters, according to YouTube.


Subscribe!

If you have something to share but don't want to comment, EMAIL ME at

aftercheese @ gmail.com

(spaces added to prevent spamming)

Archives

Advertisements