Saturday, March 8, 2014

OLD REGIME CHEESE: 1. The lost cheeses of Medieval France

This is the first of two posts on Old Regime cheese. The second is:

2. What, no Camembert?

Today, if you go into a French cheese shop, you will see a dizzying array of shapes and colors, of pyramids and circles and spheres and cubes, of yellow and red and grayish rings, of white porous masses in greenish oil or brine, of tawny, rubbery ovoids. The variety of French cheeses is so proverbial that De Gaulle is quoted as having said, “How can you govern a country which has two hundred and forty-six varieties of cheese?"

Pleasing as they are to the eye, these variations in cheese are more than aesthetic. They correspond to a variety of preservative techniques (wax, oil, brine, cinders, controlled mold, etc.), of receptacles used to drain, shape and/or store them, and of types of milk and sometimes other ingredients used to make them.

It is important to note this because, whatever commercial considerations now come into play, the original variations among cheeses were probably accidental, simply reflecting the resources and traditions of each region. This in turn is important because for a very long time cheese in France was simply noted as “cheese” and if one were to go by the written record, it would be very easy to think this immense variety only appeared in later times. That is unlikely; but the paucity of evidence makes it difficult, not only for the Medieval period, but for much of Old Regime history to document anything like the variety of cheeses found today.

Before the Gallo-Romans
Archeology is of scant help on the subject of cheese. If scattered breads, and even caches of butter, have survived from long ago, it is almost unheard of to find cheese in archeology. The major exception is a recent find in China where exceptional conditions preserved scattered remnants of cheese.
The world's oldest cheese has been found on the necks and chests of perfectly preserved mummies buried in China's desert sand.
Dating back as early as 1615 B.C., the lumps of yellowish organic material have provided direct evidence for the oldest known dairy fermentation method. The individuals were likely buried with the cheese so they could savor it in the afterlife.
And in fact this find may be relevant to European history:
The cemetery was built on a large natural dune and houses hundreds of mysterious mummies with Caucasian features, buried into massive wooden coffins resembling upside-down boats.
"Recent DNA studies showed the population of these sites was mixed, European and Asian," Anna Shevchenko, proteomics specialist in Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics, Dresden, Germany, told Discovery News.
In general, for a long time Europeans did not use cheese – or any other dairy product – because they were lactose-intolerant: “Homo sapiens was originally unable to digest raw milk. Generally, the human body only produces an enzyme that can break down lactose in the small intestine during the first few years of life.” This changed with arrivals from the east:
New research has revealed that agriculture came to Europe amid a wave of immigration from the Middle East during the Neolithic period. The newcomers won out over the locals because of their sophisticated culture, mastery of agricultureand their miracle food, milk...
...[S]cientists discovered that the first milk drinkers lived in the territory of present-day Austria, Hungary and Slovakia.
It took some time, then, before those in Gaul could even process dairy products. Just how long has not yet been documented. In Poland, it has been possible to demonstrate that cheese was made over 7,000 years ago​:
Bogucki had noticed... hole-studded pottery shards among the more plentiful relics of ancient storage pots during 35 years of excavation work with colleagues in Poland....
He went on to formally propose that the ancient hole-studded fragments, which have been found at other Central European sites in addition to those in Poland, were used in the making of cheese....
Now a team led by Richard P. Evershed of the University of Bristol in England has analyzed the sieve fragments and shown that they contain milk-fat residues, sewing up the cheese-making theory.
But no early finds of this kind have been appeared in France and none of the writers who describe the Gauls before Roman rule mention their using cheese. Caesar, who makes a point of saying that the Germans differed from the Gauls in many ways, says that the latter lived on meat, milk and caseo - that is, explicitly, cheese. Tacitus, however, writing over a century later says only that they ate lac concretum ("hardened milk", probably meaning curds). Around the same time, Pliny claimed that they knew how to make butter, yet did not know how to make cheese. This has lead to some speculation as to whether early Germans actually made cheese or only a sort of cottage cheese or curds and whey. But according to Todd, “cheese [is] attested by finds of cheese-presses from several sites” in Germany itself, so this may have varied with specific groups.

Still, of the two cultures the Germans' love of dairy products is often emphasized, the Gauls' never mentioned. This does not mean that the Gauls – who later made excellent cheese – did not make it before, but if so, it was not so striking an aspect of their culture.

The written history of French cheese begins with Pliny the Elder (23-79). It is tempting to say that it ends with him too, at least for a very long time; no writer would address the subject in such detail again until after the Middle Ages. Here, he is generally believed to be referring to Nimes (Nemausus), the Lozère (Lesura) and the Gevaudan (Gabalis):
The kinds of cheese that are most esteemed at Rome, where the various good things of all nations are to be judged of by comparison, are those which come from the provinces of Nemausus, and more especially the villages there of Lesura and Gabalis  but its excellence is only very short-lived, and it must be eaten while it is fresh.
He also refers to “Centonian” cheese from the Alps, which Bostock, writing in 1855, unhelpfully guessed to refer to “the modern fromage de Passi”, unknown today. Further on he writes that goat cheese had recently become popular, but is less than flattering on that of Gaul:
Goats also produce a cheese which has been of late held in the highest esteem, its flavour being heightened by smoking it. The cheese of this kind which is made at Rome is considered preferable to any other; for that which is made in Gaul has a strong taste, like that of medicine.
But this at the least records that a sort of smoked goat cheese was then made in Gaul as well.

And that's it: all Pliny wrote on French cheese. Right off, if you're thinking: “That's it? That's the most detail written on French cheese for centuries?”, the answer is "Yes". But more about that later.

Various attempts have been made to associate the cheeses Pliny mentions with more recent ones. In regard to those of Nimes, Bostock notes: Hardouin speaks of goat's-milk cheeses made in its neighbourhood, and known afromages de Baux.Kindstedt references other suggested descendants of Pliny's cheese:
Although the supporting evidence is far from definitive, it is believed that [salting pre-pressed milled curds before pressing] may have originated with Celtic cheesemakers in the Massif Central of Gaul where the forerunners of Laguiole, Cantal and Salers (all large uncooked cheeses that are made by [this method]) may have been made as afar back as Roman times.
He then paraphrases Pliny's mention of cheese that Kindstedt describes as being from "near the Cantal-Salers region of the Massif Central".
However, Pliny's description of this cheese... seems at odds with the contention that this was the forerunner of Laguiole, Cantal, and Salers. Dalby (2009) attempted to reconcile this with the hypothesis that that Pliny's cheese was made by the same basic Cantal technology... but was a lower-salt, shorter-lived forerunner.
Otherwise, the poet Martial mentions the cheese of Toulouse just enough to disparage it. (Today the best known cheeses in Toulouse are from elsewhere.)

Beyond these sparse textual references, some archeological evidence of cheese production from the period has been found in a region now known for its blue cheese:
The principal rural activity around Millau today, as it must have been in antiquity, is sheep and stock farming-that is, sheep reared on the Larzac plateau to provide milk for the famous cheese made at the caves of Roquefort nearby and cows from whose milk a fine Bleu des Causses cheese is produced. Although there is no reference to cheese made in the Rouergue (the territory of the ancient Ruteni) in antiquity, unlike in that of neighboring regions, "faiselles", the holed containers for straining and pressing the cheese have been found often.

The Franks
Once a Germanic group took over Gaul, one might think that cheese would have become even more important. And perhaps it did. Cheese is certainly mentioned in texts throughout the period. The problem for food historians is that the only references to cheese are generic; cheese, for most of the Medieval period, is simply... cheese.

For all the Germanic association with dairy products, Salic law says nothing about either milk or cheese. While the Franks may simply have taken these for granted as attributes of cattle, it does suggest that cheese was not a product valued (or long-lasting?) enough to be stolen (as opposed to, say, wine, the theft of which was punished).

As is so often true of French food, the Greek physician Anthimus (active 511–534) may be the first to mention it in the period. Helpfully, he tells us that it was sometimes salted and even roasted and boiled (not that he approves of doing either): “Fresh and sweet cheese, which is not salted, is appropriate for the healthy. However when it is entirely fresh, it is good dipped in honey. But anyone who eats cheese roasted or boiled needs the work of no other poison, because the fat is dried out and becomes like pure stones.

In the lives of various saints, cheese is only sometimes mentioned, even as one of the foods they might avoid, so it was not necessarily a staple. And in fact it may have been regarded as something of a treat. The poet/bishop Fortunatus (c. 530-609) mentions dishes of cheese being given at Christmas.

In various lists of foods, from Charlemagne's Capitulary de Villis, in requisition forms for envoys, in some wages (in kind) for workers, in rents from some estates, cheese is mentioned, but, for a very long time, always only as that: cheese.

A rare exception comes from several variants of eighth century instructions for what was, basically, a torture: a trial by bread and cheese (others listed are by boiling water, a hot iron, etc.). The essence of this ordeal was that the victim would be forced to eat bread (dry barley bread, for instance) and cheese and would be considered guilty if they choked on this (probably forcibly administered) food. Only some of these specify more than, simply, cheese, and most of those that do simply specify goat's or sheep's cheese, or a choice of either. While this is more than most period texts say, it is hardly a surprise, knowing which animals were raised in the period. But one adds an extra detail: that the sheep's cheese should be “made in May” (factus in Madio). In fact, this is the first hint of one of the rare distinctions to be found between cheeses by the end of the Medieval period – whether they were spring or fall cheeses.

Charlemagne's Roquefort (or not)
Unfortunately, faced with such paucity of data, many food historians cannot resist embellishing what thin facts survive. For some reason, Roquefort seems to be particularly vulnerable to this treatment.

By far the most famous reference to cheese from this period comes in an anecdote recorded by Notker the Stammerer (c. 840 – 912) in his biography of Charlemagne (742/747/748 – 814). This tale has been used to “prove” that Charlemagne ate Roquefort or another blue cheese, and even to say approximately where he ate it.

First, here (in Grant's version) is the original tale:
In the same journey too he came to a bishop who lived in a place through which he must needs pass. Now on that day, being the sixth day of the week, he was not willing to eat the flesh of beast or bird; and the bishop, being by reason of the nature of the place unable to procure fish upon the sudden, ordered some excellent cheese, rich and creamy, to be placed before him [optimum illi caseum et ex pinguedine canum – Le Grand reads this as white fat being served with the cheese, not the cheese itself being “creamy”]. And the most self-restrained Charles, with the readiness which he showed everywhere and on all occasions, spared the blushes of the bishop and required no better fare: but taking up his knife cut off the skin, which he thought unsavoury, and fell to on the white of the cheese. Thereupon the bishop, who was standing near like a servant, drew closer and said, "Why do you do that, lord emperor? You are throwing away the very best part." Then Charles, who deceived no one, and did not believe that anyone would deceive him, on the persuasion of the bishop put a piece of the skin in his mouth, and slowly ate it and swallowed it like butter. Then approving of the advice of the bishop, he said: "Very true, my good host," and he added: "Be sure to send me every year to Aix two cart-loads of just such cheeses." The bishop was alarmed at the impossibility of the task and, fearful of losing both his rank and his office, he rejoined :—" My lord, I can procure the cheeses, but I cannot tell which are of this quality and which of another. Much I fear lest I fall under your censure." Then Charles from whose penetration and skill nothing could escape, however new or strange it might be, spoke thus to the bishop, who from childhood had known such cheeses and yet could not test them. "Cut them in two," he said, "then fasten together with a skewer those that you find to be of the right quality and keep them in your cellar for a time and then send them to me. The rest you may keep for yourself and your clergy and your family." This was done for two years and the king ordered the present of cheeses to be taken in without remark: then in the third year the bishop brought in person his laboriously collected cheeses. But the most just Charles pitied his labour and anxiety and added to the bishopric an excellent estate whence he and his successors might provide themselves with corn and wine.
The first thing to point out about this anecdote is that it may never have happened; Knotker's accounts have been challenged. So, we don't know for sure that Charlemagne actually ate such a cheese. Still, Knotker himself surely referenced what he knew to be true of cheese, and so the tale is useful in that regard. 

In terms of the cheese itself, several things are clear. First, it could be shipped long distances. This was not something one could take for granted even centuries later; in 1723, Savary, writing of cheeses like Brie from the Paris region, said: "But none of these cheeses, whose consumption must be, so to say, daily, because they do not keep for long, are part of the Grocery trade." Also, it was firm enough that it could be cut in half and then fastened back together. One should note too that having to provide it is presented as something of an imposition; this implies that it took unusual effort to produce (which is less true, say, of new, soft cheeses).

It certainly included mold (“rust” in the original Latin), but the mold Knotker mentions just as certainly was not in the body of the cheese (as in a blue cheese) but on its surface. What is more, it was edible, even if the Emperor's supposed reluctance shows that some people of the time could be fastidious about this kind of thing and may even have been unfamiliar with such edible surfaces. The cheese then was almost certainly similar to a Camembert or a Brie (that is, "white rinded") cheese; but these are hardly the only French cheeses enclosed in such an edible mold.

Yet Toussaint-Samat, in her important but flawed History of Food, not only treats it as a Roquefort, but deduces from that the specific abbey where this was likely to have occurred. And she is certainly not the only writer to treat the cheese as, at the least, a blue cheese. How did a white-rinded cheese become a Roquefort in many accounts?

For that we turn to another important but flawed work: Le Grand d'Aussy's history of French food. This eighteenth century work remains a prime source for food history – and for many of the errors that persist in it. Le Grand manages to doubly confuse the issue. One French word for blue cheese is “parsleyed cheese”, referring to the substances put in the body of the cheese to create the mold. Le Grand (who does not seem to have been a cheese expert) apparently associated this with herbed cheese and so includes a note about such cheeses (The Romans mixed thyme, reduced to powder, in theirs“), while also misinterpreting the passage as referring to a blue cheese:
For a long time people have known the art of parsleying cheese; that is, of putting in the curds when making it, certain herbs which, in imparting to it their taste, further gives it veins or green stains, rather agreeable to the eye. This second is at least nine centuries old, as proves the following anecdote about Charlemagne, reported by the Monk of St. Gall...
To make matters worse, he then distorts the account itself:
“The Emperor during one of his trips,” says the Historian, “arrived suddenly and unexpectedly at a Bishop's. It was a Friday, The Prelate had no fish; and he did not dare, because of the day's abstinence, serve the Prince meat. He gave him then what he had at his place, fat and cheese. Charles ate the cheese, but, taking the parsleyed stains for mold, he was careful beforehand to remove them with the tip of his knife. The Bishop, who was standing by the table, as well as the Prince's retinue, took the liberty of telling him that what he was throwing away was the best part of the cheese. And so Charles tasted the parsleyed part; he found that his host was right, and even commanded him to send him, every year, at Aix-La-Chapelle, two cases of such cheese. The latter answered that it was well within his power to send him cheese, but not to send it parsleyed, because it was only in opening it that one could be sure the merchant had not made a mistake. Well then, said the emperor, before sending them off, cut them down the middle; it will be easy to see if they are as I wish then. You will have only to attach the two halves, in joining them with a wooden pin; then you will put everything in the case.”
It is very likely that subsequent accounts of this being a blue cheese, even of specifically being a Roquefort, all derive from this version by a major eighteenth-century historian.

Another statement arguably has better, but nonetheless uncertain, support. This is the claim that Roquefort cheese is documented as early as 1070. "The earliest secure reference to Roquefort cheese is in the eleventh century, when its donation of cheese to the great Abbey at Conques is recorded" (Whittaker).

Somewhere between 1060 and 1065, Flotard de Cornus, donating land in the general region, required each each household to provide two cheeses (donat de unamquamque cabanam duos fromaticos). He specifically required this of households in Enfruts (Enfrunos), once a town in what is now La Couvertoirade. (Three other towns mentioned, Menudes, Malpoiol and Negra-Boissiere, appear to be unknown today.)

Note that, first of all, if this town is in the same general region as Roquefort, it is some distance from it; and, more precisely, from the caves of Combalou which are credited with the cheese's unique character. Still, it is not unlikely that cheeses in the region were generally similar. What is far less certain is that such cheeses were already made with mold in them. Basically, the donation simply records that cheese was being made in the region at this point, something which barely needs to be proved; cheese was a basic, if not necessarily universal, food in France by then. But it says nothing whatsoever about how the cheese was made.

The first document which addresses anything like the details of cheese-making in the town itself comes from a royal patent from Charles VI in 1411 (cited in several sources). Marre says that this letter prevented cheeses in the Roquefort caves from being seized for debts, because, it is said, the town has no wine or wheat, but caves which are:
very cold in summer so that the local people who have cheeses bring them to arrange them and better season them and taking the time and diligence, in return for certain money or other profits which they have and take from those who have cheeses, from which the said supplicants earn their bread and support their poor lives.
This account above all emphasizes the misery of the town's life in this period. If it gives some idea of the environment in which the cheeses were produced, it still does not explicitly reference their being blue cheeses.

Note too that, whatever value one assigns to these early accounts, they reflect very local concerns. If anything, the town's poverty at this point makes it plain that its local product was not yet a source of prosperity. Otherwise, neither Roquefort cheese nor any other French blue cheese is explicitly mentioned as an item of trade in the Middle Ages.

Distinctions between cheeses
Through the Middle Ages, it would in fact be very rare to see anything like Pliny's early praise of cheeses from specific regions. When distinctions were made, they were typically on other criteria.

As the trial instructions show, the type of animal whose milk was used was an obvious one. Note too Anthimus' reference to “fresh sweet” cheeses. It would be centuries before another doctor wrote extensively on food in France. One, in the thirteenth century, was Arnaldus de Villanova (though strictly speaking he was Catalan). He too refers to fresh cheese, and to old cheese as well. In describing the best cheese, he advises that which is midway between a number of characteristics, and in doing so records the latter. He advises that it be between new and old, neither too viscous nor too frangible, nor hard nor soft, that it not be “weeping” (that is, overripe), that, like fresh bread, it not give way to the touch, that it be well “fermented” (meaning ripened?), that it be neither light nor heavy, and that it have a “delicious flavor and good odor”. This last comment seems something more than technical, the words of one who truly loved a good cheese. Still, the medical theory of the time frowned upon cheese, and he offers the standard advice, to eat it sparingly: "That cheese is good which is given with a miserly hand" (ille caseus est bonus quem data avara manus).

The fourteenth century Menagier de Paris also famously includes a kind of proverb for recognizing good cheese: Non Argus, nec Helena, nec Maria Magdalena, sed Lazarus et Martinus, respondens pontifici. [“Not Argus, nor Helena, nor Maria Magdelene, but Lazarus and Martin, responding to the highest/pontiff.”] Pichon glosses this as saying that Lazarus (the leper) indicates scabby and Martin, hard and obstinate. (like a famous lawyer), and that the reference to pontiff here is to weight. Otherwise, it is restated in a French poem, which can be roughly translated as:
Not white inside like Helen,
Not weeping like Magdalene,
Not Argus [the many-eyed] but blind
and as heavy as an ox:
Rebelling against the thumb
And let it have a scabby exterior.
Without eyes [that is, holes], without crying, not white.
Scabby, resistant, heavy.
These criteria largely echo Villanova's, suggesting that these were general ideas in the period of a good cheese.

Villanova also refers to cheese made with "flowers", probably meaning herbed cheeses. This is a very rare, probably unique, reference to these in the period.

Recall too the note above to use a cheese made in May. In the thirteenth century cookbook known as the Enseignemenz, one recipe says to use “slices of May cheese”. Ironically, the slightly later Viandier of Taillevent says to make this with fromage de gain; that is, fall cheese. This is the other major distinction one finds in the period, between spring and fall cheeses.

This distinction is far less important today, though at least one Dutch cheese, for instance, is marketed as a spring cheese. The exact reasons for it are variously discussed by those in the trade. Here is an item on Canadian cheese from 1905:
Spring Cheese. The practice of making moist, quick-ripening cheese is generally approved of by everyone connected with the trade, especially in seasons when the early spring cheese has sold at high prices, and it was necessary to have the new cheese ready for the market at the earliest possible moment, if the high prices were to be taken advantage of. .... these spring cheese have been especially made to produce a cheese that would ripen quickly...
Fall Cheese. Your fall cheese are without doubt the best cheese made in Canada. ... it is to these fall cheese that you are indebted, as far as quality is concerned, for the major portion of the high esteem in which your cheese are held....we find these fall cheese of a more meaty texture and cleaner in flavor.
Spring cheeses then seem to be the Beaujolais Nouveau of cheeses, intended to be made, sold and eaten quickly, but not considered the best or most substantial of cheeses. Still, the difference between the recommendations for the same recipe in two different texts might leave one wondering how important the distinction really was.

Taillevent typically writes only of “cheese” (unqualified) in his cookbook, but sometimes he adds a still-unusual qualifier: “fine”. This could be taken to refer to crumbled cheese, but at one point he specifically says to make a talmouse with “small square pieces like broad beans”. The term then probably referred to a finer quality of cheese, or at least a lighter variety.

In general then, one can say that the few written distinctions between cheeses, beyond the milk used to make them, are mainly whether they were new (“fresh”) or old, salted or unsalted, viscous or frangible, firm or soft, heavy or light, fine or not and made in the spring or the fall. The one distinction that is almost never mentioned is their place of origin; with the notable exception of the cheeses of Brie.

Brie cheese
Even Brie has not escaped exaggeration. Tiquetonne-Samat follows the Charlemagne anecdote above with a claim that he “was equally enthusiastic about the cheeses of Reuil in Brie”. She provides no source for this (very unlikely) statement. But other authors too have claimed that the Emperor praised Brie cheese.

To be clear: Knotker's anecdote above about cheese is the only mention of cheese from either Einhard or Knotker (Charlemagne's surest biographers) and, if it suggests a white rinded cheese, it says nothing about Brie.

However, if Brie cheese cannot be documented as far back as the eighth or ninth century, it was certainly known as of the thirteenth.

In 1217, Blanche of Navarre, Countess of Champagne, listed expenses for her agents, one for purchases made at two fairs: one at Provins, one at Troyes. Both these places were in the Brie region and the first item on this list was pro ducentis caseis missis ad regemthat is, “for two hundred cheeses sent to the King” (Philip Augustus, reigned 1180 – 1223). These were very likely Brie cheeses, since they were bought in the region. Were they anything like today's Brie cheese? As with Roquefort, details would not appear for some time and we have no way of knowing that. Still, the Charlemagne anecdote above shows that similar white-rinded cheeses had long existed and, depending on how the passage is read, may already have been creamy.

This was Blanche's own region. But another reference to the cheeses of Brie is from soon after, and farther away.

In 1281, Eleanor of Castile (1241 – 1290), Queen Consort of England, sent to France for some supplies. Eleanor, wife of Edward I (reigned 1272 – 1307), was raised in Spain, but the daughter of a French mother and herself the Countess of Ponthieu, which may have influenced her tastes in food. For whatever reason, one of the items on her “shopping list” was “vii dozen Brie cheeses bought in Paris.” 

But references to Brie cheese were not only buried away in accounts. In the same period, a poet recorded various “Cries of Paris”, including this one:
I have good Champagne cheese,
And there is Brie cheese.
This by the way is a very rare mention of "Champagne cheese". Where Brie cheese today continues to be known by its region, the cheese of Champagne is better known through individual varieties, such as Chaource.

Note too that the Brie region, and the town of Brie-Comte-Robert in particular, is very close to Paris; this no doubt contributed to the cheese's unusual success.

The poet Eustache Deschamps (1346-1406) left several scathing poems about Brie itself, including a back-handed acknowledgment of the local cheese's reputation, saying, in effect, that the people there did a great deal of boasting for “a little cheese”.

These references show clearly that the cheese – however exactly it was made – was well-known in the period. They are all the more striking in contrast to the complete silence on other regional cheeses which would later become standard in France. Otherwise, one other very rare reference to a regional cheese comes not from France, but from nearby in Liège, where the fourteenth century monk Brother Leonard referenced the cheese of Flanders.

UPDATE July 6, 2015: Mention of "St. Florentan" cheese (1294) in Provins cartulary.

Using cheese
Anthimus' early references show that people sometimes cooked or boiled cheese, or ate it with honey. For a long time after his work, no mention of cheese says anything about how it was used (except, that is, for torture). Knotker's account shows Charlemagne eating it just as most do today, with no further cooking or processing.

Ekkhard's tenth century table blessings itemize different foods, including cheese, which doctors of the time considered (in varying degrees) unhealthy. Ekkehard says that pepper, honey and wine all make milk (in general) less harmful. He then adds the slightly obscure note that Lactis pressuram crux melle  premat nocituram; roughly, "The cross honeyed squeezes out the harm of pressured milk." Pressura, however, also refers to rennet and the "pressured milk" here is probably curdled, giving the general sense that honey, along with the sign of the Cross, would make "curdled milk" less harmful. More broadly, the passage might suggest that one dipped cheese in one of the above or mixed them into it; which presumably would have depended on whether this was a hard or soft cheese.

In the thirteenth century, Aldebrandino mentions, again, roasting it. Villanova includes it in at least one sauce. 

UPDATE 3/12/2014 In a sumptuary law of 1294, Philip the Fair (1268 – 1314) declares that cheese is not considered a dish unless it is "in pastry or cooked in water".

A century later, Taillevent, very exceptionally, refers to using cheese in dishes and sauces, sometimes adding “if one wants”. But the use of cheese in cooking in the period seems to have been very rare.

A menu (added to a fifteenth century version of Taillevent's work) also lists “junkets” or jonchées; that is small and probably new cheeses in wicker baskets. In general, this is the period where cheese becomes part of a course; both Taillevent and the Menagier mention it in lists of courses.

The Menagier de Paris also suggests, however rarely, using it in food and also includes two mentions which seem to be the first of their kind. One is of grated cheese. The other is of the use of cheese blended with eggs for what we would today consider a dessert; for tartlets, each cheese is said to provide six, with three eggs used per cheese.

Cheese was also used in flans, though we know that indirectly, because of similar recipes included in both the Enseignemens and the Viandier which replace the cheese (for fast days) with something said to taste like it: fish eggs. As it happens, this is also our only reference for exactly what Medieval cheese tasted like; it is not an encouraging one.

Finally, one early, and pagan, use for cheese may have been to make sacrificial figures. Gregory of Tours speaks of pagan sacrifices near Gevaudan – that is, right near the same place whose cheeses Pliny mentions – where, among the objects thrown in a lake were formas casei ac cerae ["forms of cheese and wax"]. On its own, “cheese forms” would refer to those used to make the cheese; but here he adds “and of wax”, suggesting that shapes – probably cult figurines – were made of both.

The lost cheeses
These references show how thin references were to specific cheeses in the Medieval period. Even in the following centuries, when other cheeses, notably Roquefort, would join Brie in having some reputation, nothing would appear like the variety of regional cheeses now commonly found.

Does this mean such cheeses did not exist, that only a handful of cheeses existed in France in this period? Certainly not. The difference in pasturage alone would have resulted in variations in cheese, even when made from the milk of the same animal. The variations in types of milk, the different storage methods and conditions, the preference for a fresh or an aged cheese, even the method used to shape the cheeses, all these would have produced a rich variety of cheeses across France in this era. But most people in the period would have been unaware of the cheeses in other regions, given the lack of sophisticated, never mind refrigerated, transport. While Notker's tale shows that some cheeses could be transported between regions, this does not seem to have been common.

One result of this would have been that for most people “cheese” was whatever they knew locally. It would have been unnecessary to note the origins of different cheeses because most people had no reason to know that these were significantly different. Today, just as some writers take references to, say, Roquefort cheese in this period as referring to cheeses like those found later in the same region, one might postulate that the earlier cheeses of other regions also resembled those found there today. But this is a purely speculative approach; it is far less likely that anything like substantial information on the regional cheeses of the past will appear. And so this rich variety of Medieval cheeses is effectively lost to us today, and is likely to remain so.


Mignon, Ernest, Les mots du Général 1972

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Cartulaire de l'abbaye de Conques en Rouergue 1879

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Map with Brie-Comte-Robert (upper left), Provins (middle) and Troyes(lower right)

Balades en Brie

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