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Cheese Slang, pt 2: Portuguese and the Pastoral

“I want my illustrations for Dante to be like the faint markings of moisture in a divine cheese . . . Mysticism is cheese; Christ is cheese, better still, mountains of cheese!” — Salvador Dalí

Now that we’ve learned a few ways to demean and insult women with cheese slang, the next step in the course of nature is to broaden our affronts to races and nations. So what are some cheese-related racial slurs?


First, there’s “pork and cheese,” a pet name for the Portuguese that probably originated in the gas-choked trenches of the first World War. The phrase has nothing to do with what Portuguese soldiers ate; it’s just simple rhyming slang. Like “nanny goat” as a stand-in for “throat,” or “Winona Ryder” for “cider” — or just about every word in Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake standing-in for three or four words from various languages:

This in fact, just to show you, is Caseous, the brutherscutch or puir tyron: a hole or two, the highstinks aforefelt and anygo prigging wurms. Cheesugh! you complain. And Hi Hi High must say you are not Hoa Hoa Hoally in the wrong!

. . . which is when puns and rhyming slang get out of hand. (Worse than Aristotle? Maybe not.)

Apparently, “pork and cheese” was most freely used by the New Zealand soldiery. Who could have guessed — the Kiwis?! of all people —

I’m not sure if “pork and cheese” was originally offensive, intentionally or otherwise. We’d like to imagine it was all brotherly trench-talk, jocular word play. Wouldn’t we. Just a jumble of pork and cheese (Portuguese), Mary Anns (Americans), icky fish (English), baseball showers (Central Powers), and the rest of the gang. And we’d like to imagine that the whole World War was just a barroom jostle, punch-in-the-shoulder fun; that nationalism was a passing joke; and that human beings weren’t vile and godless monsters, on the whole. (“The Cruel Animal,” as Mark Twain defines us.)*

It turns out they are.


. . . and then the monsters made monster trucks.

. . . and then the monsters made monster trucks.


(I’ll mention that cheese might have sparked the first World War, if indirectly.)


Portuguese man . . . or imposter?

Portuguese man . . . or imposter?

But whatever its original import, I gather that “pork and cheese” is not considered “brotherly” or “fun” by now. Do not experiment with this phrase, teach it to children, or send it by company email. Urban Dictionary tells me that “If portuguse people are called pork and cheese they’ll kick ur fricken ass or pull out some pork and cheese and make u eat it.” (The first half does sound like a punishment, though the second’s a little reassuring.) Another entry claims the phrase is not derogatory on its own; however, the example provided is, “There are a lot of Pork ‘n’ Cheese living over here these days” — which doesn’t sound very neutral or anodyne to me. But I’m no expert. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever met a Portuguese man in my life. Even if I had, he could have been an imposter.


I have read at least one Portuguese author: Fernando Pessoa. And what does Fernando Pessoa say? “I’m not a pessimist. I’m sad.” I’d like to quote more, but I’ll restrict my selections to footnotes to protect the uninterested.**


There is a Mexican restaurant near my home that serves a delicious heap of pork smothered in melted cheese. So people aren’t all bad.

The Heap has nothing to do with Portugal, I think.


The Portuguese do eat pork, like the rest of us, and they have and do make cheese — although, like the Spanish, they haven’t exported much until recently. There aren’t too many Portuguese cheeses — not the variety of France or Italy — just a modest number of well-crafted, small production affairs; and they’re usually sheep or goat’s milk, no doubt due to terrain. Two of the more famous varieties that I’ve seen in stores are São Jorge and Castelo Branco. The first is one of Portugal’s rare cow’s milk cheeses, made on the volcano-island São Jorge, of the Azores chain. It is lightly tangy and peppery, firm but crumbly. The second, Castelo Branco, is a sheep’s milk cheese from the mainland, which features the potent aroma of grass and raw poultry accompanying a piquant, buttery, nicely acidic flavor-crescendo. I can more enthusiastically recommend Castelo Branco, having eaten more of it myself. (And I’m the only one I can trust, so far.)

Also, there’s a Wisconsin-made variation of Castelo Branco made at Hidden Springs Creamery, called Ocooch Mountain. It’s a beefy, full, and earthy washed-rind cheese with a very long taste. As with Grayson, the ethics and aesthetics of American artisan cheesemaking are important for Ocooch Mountain. You’re buying and eating the idea, as much as anything. What is the idea? I don’t have a Hidden Springs mission statement on hand, but I can surmise.

The Creamery is a small sheep dairy of sustainable intentions in southwest Wisconsin’s Amish farm country. The sheep are East Friesian (a highly productive breed) and Lacaune (with richer milk, well-known as the udders behind France’s Roquefort); and all the milking and cheesemaking is done seasonally, by hand, with minimal modern technology. The owners even dug out their own natural cave for aging. “The idea,” then, is vitally tied to the poetry and symbolism of the ancient Pastoral Ideal — and if you’re not convinced: the herd is guarded by donkeys. I suppose the practice isn’t unusual (and if you want some tips on how to manage your own guard donkey, the Texas Department of Agriculture can help), so it’s very urbanly-ignorant of me to be shocked and amazed — but there must be something about donkeys and sheep living together in St. John’s Apocalypse, it’s just too shockingly idyllic.

Few things make me more eager to forgo petty city pleasures and take to the hills than the thought that I might, eventually, tend a herd of sheep guarded by a donkey. And I quote Don Quixote:

I should like, O Sancho, for us to become shepherds . . . . I shall buy some sheep, and all the other things needed for the pastoral exercise, and my name will be Shepherd Quixotiz and yours Shepherd Pancino, and we shall roam the mountains, the woods, and the meadows, singing here, lamenting there, drinking the liquid crystals of the fountains, or the limpid streams, or the rushing rivers. With a copious hand the oaks will give us their sweetest fruit; the hard cork trees, their trunks as seats; the willows, their shade; the roses, their fragrance; the broad meadows, carpets a thousand shades and colors; the clear, pure air, our breath; the moon and stars, our light in spite of night’s darkness; pleasure will give us our songs; joy, our weeping; Apollo, our verses; love, our conceits; and with these we shall make ourselves eternal and famous, not only in the present but in times to come.***


Love and sheep.

Love and sheep.


I’ll admit that American artisanal cheese is much too American and too post-60s to be associated with all the implications of the European Pastoral Ideal of yore — but significant essentials remain intact, especially for the well-to-do urban consumer looking in from outside, reading labels and web-pages. Someday I’ll have to think and write more about American pastoralism and the aesthetic of artisan cheese. Not today: do you see how I’ve babbled already? Also, before I do I’m sure I’ll have to check out a book from the library, something written by an English or American Studies professor, entitled “The Marrow of Life”: American Pastoralism from Henry Thoreau to Artisan Cheese — or something like that, with a special chapter on donkeys guarding sheep — because it’s unacceptable to have an opinion these days without muddling everything with “research” first — which is one reason I rarely have opinions.

Sheep’s milk cheese hasn’t quite caught on yet in the States. The index of the 2007 Atlas of American Cheese has three pages devoted to cow’s milk cheese; just over two pages for goat’s milk; and about a third of a page for sheep’s milk. Knowing, as we all do, what wonders have been accomplished with sheep’s milk all around the Mediterranean, I believe this void on our soil is a sordid crime. I have no explanation; I don’t believe there is any. I will blame whomever I must, I just want the problem fixed. Hopefully that fix is in the works. There’s always hope.****


I have babbled too much. I can’t go on, for your sake and mine. I can’t and I won’t. If babble weren’t the purpose of The Blog (not only this blog, but blogs in general), then I might be ashamed.***** I’m not. The Cheese Slang posts will have to stretch into one more; and in that final post we’ll discuss the Dutch and learn about the Original Cheese Head. (Religiously, I believe it was Brett Favre; historically, there’s another explanation.)

BUT: So that trivia fanatics don’t leave disappointed at having learned only one bit of cheese slang, I’ll toss in a few quickies:

Cheese = money, as in “government cheese.” During the 80s, the US Government began distributing “Pasteurized Process American Cheese for Use in Domestic Programs” to welfare and food stamp recipients. By implication, then, “cheese” can mean money in general, handouts in general, charity for poor people, handouts for lazy people, a sign of poverty, and much, much more. “Who stole my cheese?” starts to sound urgent.

Cheese it! Not, as Urban Dictionary claims, first used in West Side Story. This phrase is as old as the 1870s, and typically employed within the longer sentence “Cheese it, the cops!”, or to tell somebody to be quiet. It’s thought by some to be connected with “stow it,” which would work in both those contexts — but what does stowing have to do with cheese? This nice commentary brings up the suggestion that “Cheese it!” derives from an older proverb, “After cheese comes nothing.” Everyone’s favorite. “Cheese it,” then, would mean to put a stop to whatever’s going on, to deliver the final words, strike the final blow, exit the final exit. Maybe blow the final trumpet, as Archangel Michael will do to put an end to time at last. No coincidence, then, that “Cheese it!” could be rhyming slang for “Jesus.”


* Of course the churlish Twain certainly had his own racial prejudices: “And so I find that we have descended and degenerated, from some far ancestor–some microscopic atom wandering at its pleasure between the mighty horizons of a drop of water perchance–insect by insect, animal by animal, reptile by reptile, down the long highway of smirchless innocence, till we have reached the bottom stage of development–namable as the Human Being. Below us–nothing. Nothing but the Frenchman.”

** Pessoa: “Should you ask me if I’m happy, I’ll answer that I’m not.” 

*** Compare to Pessoa: “I asked for very little from life, and even this little was denied me. A nearby field, a ray of sunlight, a little bit of calm along with a bit of bread, not to feel oppressed by the knowledge that I exist, not to demand anything from others, and not to have others demand anything from me — this was denied me, like the spare change we might deny a beggar not because we’re mean-hearted but because we don’t feel like unbuttoning our coat.”

**** Pessoa: “A tedium that includes the expectation of nothing but more tedium; a regret, right now, for the regret I’ll have tomorrow for having felt regret today — huge confusions with no point and no truth, huge confusions . . .”

***** Pessoa: “The only attitude worthy of a superior man is to persist in an activity he recognizes is useless, to observe a discipline he knows is sterile, and to apply certain norms of philosophical and metaphysical thought that he considers utterly inconsequential.”

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.

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.


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:


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.

Blessed Hildegard and the Profiling of Cheese

“Cheese without a rind is like a maiden without shame.” — Italian proverb

To prove that I’m serious, uncomfortably serious,* my first post-proper will take for its subjects two real, reeking, purchasable cheeses — one an Italian classic, the other an American fledgling. It will be my first entry into the “Cheese Profiles” category. It will head the magnificent parade to come. But first, a preface, and an epigraph for the nascent category — as I hope to plant epigraphs wherever I can —


My “Cheese Profiles,” god bless them, are intended to resemble those standard summaries that comprise most of the cheese-resources I’ve encountered: a few brief words about the cheese’s geographical and historical origin, a few more about the mode of production, then a visual description and some tasting notes. Usually there’s a picture. I’m not sure if mine will have pictures yet; but they will have everything else and more. I suppose there’s a spirit behind this practice that has something to do with contemporary “organic” movements and the notion that you might be better off, or healthier, or more ethical or self-actualized the more you know about what you eat. There’s also a spirit of cosmopolite connoisseurship budding in the States that honors the cultivation evident in wellspoken, knowledgeable diners. (Another day I’ll have to compare and contrast, in middleschool style, these sometimes competing, sometimes cooperating American food cultures, as they play out in places like fancy cheese shops.) At the very least, if you’re desperate for purpose, after reading “Cheese Profiles” you’ll have another means of drawing attention to yourself in conversation.

Instead of aligning myself with contemporaries of either camp, or with recent political trends (“It’s COOL to know your food”), I’d prefer today to take up with a perspective more anachronistic, an authority long dead and gone, somebody with that venerable contemptus mundi** that keeps me so cheerful. Today the explanation I’ll provide for writing any “Cheese Profile” at all — as though explanation were needed — will draw upon the Benedictine nun and mystic Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) — aka Hildegardis Bingensis, Blessed Hildegard, Saint Hildegard, Sybil of the Rhine, Hildegard of Bingen — famous for her hymns and visions. In a letter to Daniel, Bishop of Prague, St. Hildegard once wrote,

“The voice of life and salvation says: Why will a person chew on a grape and still wish to remain ignorant of the nature of that grape?”

As everyone knows, Hildegard was writing typologically of the grape that Noah planted after the Deluge dried up — the grape that started the vineyard that led to Noah’s famed drunken nudity (Gen 9:18-27). There’s a lot of theological material there, and trust, gentle reader, that it rends my soul to skip over all the possible sermonizing*** and tedious digressing — but the principle stripped bare is all we need here; so I’ll shuffle to the punchline, taking the Voice of Life and Salvation for my own and asking,

“Why will a person eat of some cheese and still wish to remain ignorant of the nature of that cheese?”

That should be enough for an epigraph. End preface. (There will be more on St. Hildegard later, when I write about the age-old analogy between cheesemaking and babymaking.)

So I’ve digressed, unsalvageably. That promised post on Taleggio and Grayson will have to follow in the next installment.

* “That has been my disease. I was born grave as others syphilitic.”
** Please do examine that link, with sensitive attention to the chosen bible verse.
*** Go here to read Henry Smith’s late 16th C. sermon on Noah’s drunkenness, “a glass wherein all drunkards may behold their beastliness.”

Welcome Address

So here begins an extended effort to inform, edify, enrich and entertain the masses, and myself. Another blog for the swill. This one will simulate focus by professing a single unifying theme: Cheese.

What follows will be an indefinite, probably irregular series of posts all concentrated on the subject of Cheese. We will test the limits of the subject’s endurance, its elasticity, its tensile strength; we will prod its depths and surfaces, shimmy our probes under the skin, dissect the organs. At some point, with regret, we will abandon the whole mess, leaving only shredded carrion too wretched for scavengers. Like the Socratic method, or an old-fashioned martyrdom.

Why would I choose to write on Cheese? A proper explanation would become too personal, too quickly. This is not a diary blog. “If all goes well,” as they say, you will see, you will understand what has attracted my attention, excited my ambition, if you don’t already. For now I can summarize a few points: Cheese is important to me, it is important to America, and it is important to Civilization. Maybe. For known and unknown reasons I enjoy learning about it. And for obvious, irrefutable reasons I enjoy eating it.

I believe there are untapped reserves of enchanting, amusing, innaresting things to be written on Cheese, and I also believe there are reserves of readers who might, or should, want to learn more. Consider Internet lesson #1: No subject is too far left field to win brief allegiance from these strange hordes of networked souls. And Cheese is not even left field. As Battistotti, Bottazzi, Piccainardi, and Volpato have argued, “without cheese Western Man, or many of his number, simply could not have survived as long as he has.”

Despite my respect and goodwill for other cheese blogs I’ve run across, I hope to differentiate my own in a few ways. My initial proscriptive principles, then, will be as follows (perhaps more detailed explanations will come in future posts):

  • I will try to avoid the temptation, widespread today, to peddle in Food Porn — as in the style of unconvincing gush that dominates descriptions of terrior and Farmer’s Markets. It infects modern cheesewriting like a pox. I have no purpose for it here.
  • I will not simply provide another guide to modern cheese consumerism. There are plenty of decent books, magazines, catalogs, and websites that primarily exist to help you buy your cheese. This blog is to be more about sloppy amateur cheese scholarship and dilettante indulgence, maybe some story-telling, and a carnival of curiosities.
  • As I will not limit my treatment of Cheese to its contemporary niche market, the artisanal boom in America, and so on, I also will not restrict Cheese to a subcategory of Wine Culture, under the “pairing” umbrella. I leave that to the glossy books.

There’s what I hope to leave out, provisionally. Here’s what’s to be expected:

  • Essays into the history and cultural significance of Cheese, according to what I can find on the internet and in the library. I want to dig up dusty stuff.
  • Comments on the books and sites about Cheese that I look at.
  • Some tasting and background notes on specific cheeses — as a form of gratification, as a means to inform, as a tangible base, and as a gateway to other things. These notes might also help people buy cheese from stores, if inclined. (And I do encourage cheese-buying.)
  • Learned ruminations on Cheese references literary, philosophical, theological, proverbial, and otherwise. These will be written in armchairs, preferably, while wearing spectacles.
  • General posts on whatever demands or deserves comment.
  • Informational posts intended for nothing more than education, certainly not pleasure.

Finally, I’ll ask anyone who comes across this site to send me comments, questions, suggestions, ideas and anecdotes, cheese references you’ve run across, links cheese-related or otherwise relevant, and so on. Any outside input can only increase my enjoyment, and that’s what really matters here.

This is all meant to be shameless.


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