Saturday, March 15, 2014

OLD REGIME CHEESE: 2. What, no Camembert?

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

As France left the Middle Ages, references to cheese remained sparse.
In 1402, a local record referred to fromages de gain – that is, the fall cheese known earlier – and to fromages de presse. The first term was already fading at this point. “Cheeses of the press”, or pressed cheeses, were first mentioned in the late twelfth century and only fitfully appear in texts afterwards. This term is never firmly defined, but almost certainly referred to cheese that had been drained and pressed, and so was harder and longer-lasting. Its very use hints at how often people ate fresh, soft cheese that was neither.
The Bourgeois of Paris, who left a journal of the war-ravaged years between 1405 and 1449, continually notes shifts in the prices of foods, including cheese. He refers to fromage blanc (“white cheese”), “very white” cheese, newly made cheese, soft cheese, tout pissant (“all peeing”, that is, probably over-ripe) cheese, and fromage de presse. Most of these terms refer to newer cheeses, barely processed before being sold. Note too that in almost every case he describes them as “small” or even “very small”, only once mentioning a “very large” cheese.
The Bourgeois only refers to one cheese by origin: "In this time, there was no news for housewives of eggs nor Brie cheeses, nor of peas nor of broad beans, because the Armagnacs destroyed everything..." Once again, Brie cheese is the only one named and here being deprived of this standard item is one sign of disastrous times.
In a later chronicle from 1461 to 1483, Jean de Troyes describes people being so hungry that “they took cheeses without peeling them and bit right into them”, which is an unusually specific reference to how people typically ate cheese.
In 1477, Pantaleone de Confienza (from Coblenz) included a chapter on dairy products in his Pillularium omnibus medicis quam necessarium clarissimi docto. Magistri, including a look at French cheeses. Barthélemy de Chasseneuz, (1480-1541) summarized these in the next century, in his Catalogus Gloria Mundi (1540). This is a precious document in not only listing several cheeses, but in giving descriptions of them and even sometimes how they were eaten:
The cheeses of Bresse, which is near the Allobroges [Vienne], and Burgundy, and these are cheeses, which some also call death's heads, or monk's, and they are very fine, and of a smooth taste
Put close to the fire with certain instruments of iron holding these, and as they melt pouring on somewhat toasted crusts of bread [that is, bread crumbs], and this is a good opening [aperitive] food, and can be carried long distances, yes, why even as far as Rome...
This essentially describes a cheese covered in toasted bread crumbs after it has melted, or at least considerably softened, apparently making it easier to transport.
At Etigny [now a very small village], near Dijon  each year are made excellent cheeses, and best eaten fresh, as they are agreeable and fatty, although small.
Crapone cheese from Auvergne, resembles Brie both in flavor and form, for they are round, and oblong, light in weight, two or three pounds, and have a good taste and melt in the fire.
 Quite incidentally, this provides an early detailed description of Brie cheese.
Among the rest of the French cheeses, even though good cheese is made in many places, but especially in Touraine in the place of Bréhémont, excellent... cheeses are made.
Cheeses made in the Bourges region are also praised, as they are good, though small, not thick, and wonderfully fatty.
Again, however, Brie cheese remains paramount:
Yet in the entire Gaul, the cheeses of the Brie, a region which is not far removed from the city of Paris, are the most excellent, for they are good, not hard to digest..., a little easier to melt in the fire, Nor, in the latter is there great viscosity, because they do not stretch into threads, but melt, further they have a lemony color, and then they are said to be perfect, and one of the best that exists.
Chasseneuz also points out that Pantaleone mentions the cheeses of Savoy “both on this side of the mountains and beyond”, but says dismissively that “these are not famous among us.”

In this same century an Italian, Bartolomeo Sacchi (1421 – 1481), known as “Platina”, wrote that two Italian cheeses contended for first place, one (today Marzolino) named for being made in March, and the other Parmesan cheese, which was also called “May” because it was made in May. Here again, the season of a cheese's making remained important.

The sixteenth century
With the sixteenth century, the written record changes dramatically. This says more about the state of documentation – notably the invention of the printing press – than it does about the state of cheese; the several cheeses which now appear in written records very likely had existed for some time before this. Several writers in particular left accounts of different cheeses. Platina's Latin original says nothing of French cheese, but a French “translator” freely added some useful information on his own country's cheeses:
Because it is said that Parmesan cheese is the best in the country of Italy, and Brie cheese is greatly praised and prized in France; cheeses of Chauny, of Bréhémont also are very good. In the Dauphiné it is said [are mentioned?] the cheese of the [grande] Chartreuse, of the espine and romanois, in Burgundy and en Bresse, there are also good ones to melt: similarly in Auvergne and in Crapone there are good cheeses to roast, and all thus in other places and regions of the country, according to the good pasturage which are in these countries the said cheeses are good.
(Note that some of this looks suspiciously like it came from Pantaleone.) In Le Grand d'Aussy's eighteenth century work, this becomes: “Platina (1509) cites among the good cheeses those of Chaunay in Picardy, of Bréhémont in Touraine, of the grande Chartreuse in the Dauphiné, of the Epine and of Rosanais in Burgundy.”
Jean-Baptiste Bruyerin (fl. 1560) also wrote at some length on French cheese in his De re cibaria (1560).
The Arveni [Auvergnats] who possess fat and fertile pasturage raise large herds of bovines. Thus almost all the quadrupeds among them are of a remarkable size, but particularly the cows whose milk serves to make a great quantity of cheese. It is known that these cheese have a great reputation and that they are superior to all other French cheeses as much in size as in good taste. Such is the opinion to which not only a good part of the Gauls, but of almost the whole universe remains obstinately attached.
Among them there are some which have a round shape and which are called "formagines"."
He then describes a visit to Allanche (once the capital of Cantal) where he found "a great number of huts where many children, barely fourteen, busied themselves with making cheese. Arms bare up to the elbow, they press cheese with their hands in a "fiscellum" (a cheese press) and they do it so skillfully and properly, that the elegance and the neatness leave nothing to desire." Their master, he says, explained that the children had to be clean, with no blemishes on their hands, which, further, could not be too hot. Asked why, the master said too much heat kept the cheese from solidifying properly.
Among the same people are found still other cheeses called cheese of Craponne from the name of the small city ... These last have a cylindrical form and are the length of an elbow: these can only be used melted in the fire, and the liquid part, spread on slices of grilled bread, is the delight of those who eat them.
The first cheeses mentioned are said to be very fat and very thick, their whey only being used for making butter.
Bruyerin mentions a number of other cheeses, including those of the Dauphiné, of Touraine, small ones from Lyons and excellent ones from Normandy, notably the small angelots, said to be named for the image of an angel on an English coin that once circulated in the area.
Note that some of what Bruyerin writes recalls earlier writers (whom he was often said to copy) and later writers often echo his words. It would take careful study to untangle which references seem to be carried over from previous documentation and which are original with each writer.
In this same period, in 1566, in statutes for the Pastry-makers/Waferers, the King allowed corporation members the right to inspect the Brie cheese sold in Paris and its suburbs; given that the said Pastry-makers have an interest in this, since they daily use the said merchandise. Philip the Fair's 1294 ordinance already showed that cheese was used in pasties (the original French “pastries”), but it is interesting that Brie cheese was singled out in this way – meaning that no other was used, or that only the quality of the Brie cheese was an issue?

Charles Estienne (1504-1564) compiled and then translated L'agriculture et maison rustique, but it was supplemented and published in 1586 by his son-in-law Jean Liébaut (1535-1596) and republished multiple times after. The standard version of the work includes several notes on cheese. These barely address well-known cheeses, but conversely offer glimpses of some forgotten regional products:
Milk curdled and thickened without rennet makes small cheeses, which in Paris are called jonchées.
The Normans boil milk with garlic and onions, and keep it in a vessel for their use, and call it sour milk, or serat...
Pike eggs.... with which are made Lenten cheeses, called à la chardonette
This last label is curious, since some cheeses were curdled with thistle – chardon – but clearly not this one. Since cheese itself was fitfully forbidden on fast days, it is also curious that it became acceptable by changing how it was curdled.
Estienne's passage on how cheese was made in Auvergne seems to be drawn directly from Bruyerin:
The Auvergnat take their cheeses very seriously, choosing young people of fourteen, clean, neat, and very proper, not having scabby hands, swollen hands, nor even immoderate heat: because they think and persuade themselves that such filth on the hands prevents the coagulation of cheeses...
A good cheese, he says, "is fatty and heavy, slices neatly, is a little yellowish, sweet to the taste, pleasant to the smell, and not at all rotting, nor full of mites, or worms, and is made of pure cow's milk, without mixing in that of sheep, which makes the cheese less flavorful, and whiter.” In regard to this last, he claims the Poitevins made cheese yellower by adding in a little saffron. Otherwise, the fact that he finds it necessary to say that the best cheese did not have mites or worms in it inevitably leaves one wondering how often period cheeses did.
By the end of the sixteenth century then, several more cheeses were known than in the Medieval period. Yet the list remained a short one relative to today's profusion. Note too that, even as some cheeses gained a reputation, one cheese still does not appear in these lists: Roquefort; nor do any of the above descriptions of cheese reference colored veins in the cheese itself.

Seventeenth century
At the start of the seventeenth century, Olivier de Serres (1539 - 1619) published a similar work, Le théatre d'agriculture. He included only brief notes on cheese. His mention of Brie is surprisingly off-handed and (probably erroneously) assigns angelots to that region:
Brie among others, for its good cheeses called Angelots, and the Baux in Provence, in the beds of Languedoc, because of the fineness of its little fourmageons ["cheeselets"], are very prized and fertile in milk and cheeses: and similarly the Province of Brittany."
As Le Grand points out, it is strange to see De Serres emphasize the cheeses of Brittany, which was more known for its butter.

He then lists cheeses of Milan and Turkey as the first foreign cheeses, above those of Switzerland, and after the latter Holland and Zealand, emphasizing the fine pasturages of these last two. He adds that some say "as much milk is gathered in these two provinces as of wine in all of Gascony."

Gruyère was long known as one of the best foreign – that is, Swiss – cheeses. But by 1698 there was already a French version:
In certain parts of the mountains of Franche-Comté, named Gruyères, cheeses were made, at the end of the last century, which bore the same name. The Memoir of the Intendant of this Province (one of those which the different Intendants of the Kingdom provided in 1698, by order of the King, to the Duke of Burgundy for the instruction of this Prince) informs us that these cheeses were sold all over France, and that peasants gained considerably, during the war by carrying them themselves in the armies of Italy and Germany.
(Le Grand d'Aussy)
How long did this last? Only a few years ago, Swiss cheesemakers won exclusivity for their use of the label Gruyère. But as of 2012, cheesemakers in the Franche-Comté were again allowed to use it so long as the holes in the French version were big enough. (The Swiss version, despite a common English-language metaphor, has none.)

UPDATE 3/15/14 
A review of earlier documents shows that Roquefort cheese was not mentioned beyond the region until this century. But it was well-known enough by 1649 to be the subject of a poem (included in a collection celebrating the King's return):
Paste of milk, curdled mass,
Creamy cake, Royal morsel,
Tasty dish, and without equal,
Thick image of the Sun,
Ravishing taste, beautiful preparation,
Volume come from the press,
Cheese which becomes small,
Roquefort, how I caress you,
Wheel* come among us to sharpen the appetite.
*Meule - Alternately, millstone or heap, like a haystack
What explains this sudden (if still fitful) reputation? Did the technique of creating veins in the cheese appear in this same century? Yet, as lovingly detailed as this poem is  showing us a round, thick but small, tasty cheese   it says nothing of a visual detail one would think ready-made for a poet.

Eighteenth century
Having, in the preceding century, joined the ranks of well-known cheeses, Roquefort now even moved to the forefront of this group. But the group itself was still not large.

Diderot's Encyclopedia says this of different cheeses:
Roquefort cheese is without doubt the first cheese of Europe; that of Brie, that of Sassenage, that of Marolles is equal to the best foreign cheese; that of the mountains of Lorraine, of Franche-Comté, and of the neighboring regions, perfectly imitate that of Gruyère; the cheese of Auvergne is as good as the best Dutch cheese, etc.
All the doctors who have spoken of cheese have reasonably distinguished it as fresh or recent, or old, or strong and sharp; they have further derived other differences but less essential from the diversity of animals who have provided the milk, from the odor, the taste, the degree of saltiness, etc. 
What is striking in this passage is, not only the numerous famous French cheeses which go unmentioned, but the basis for pride in some of those that are: they are as good as similar foreign cheeses. This is hardly what one expects to read in a French work on a domain where France today might fairly claim primacy.
In an earlier work (1722), Delamare  is more discursive, but he is also still drawing largely on Bruyerin:
The Dauphiné by the grande Chartreuse and the Marquisat of Sassenage provides us very good ones.
Normandy... also gives us a lot of cheese. It comes to us from Roüen, from Pont-Levêque. near Lisieux , from Gournaÿ en Bray, and all the Vexin. 
He adds later that some cheese from Vexin was then flavored with nails of clove.
Brittany provides less... is [in butter] that it excels.
In Touraine, the cheese of the country of Bresne, on the Creuse river, are esteemed... but they are better fresh than old.
One observes in general that good cheeses are made in all the regions of France which are far from the Mediterranean, because the climate is more temperate, the pasturage better, and more abundant, and a great number of foods for livestock are made there.
And then, yet again, we read: “But the most excellent of all and the most esteemed are those of Brie. These are sent to the most distant countries and they are served on the best tables.”
Probably the most complete list comes from De Bruslon's Dictionary of Commerce, written for tradespeople. He gives some of the most detailed descriptions of major cheeses
One must not forget among the Cheeses of France, the excellent Cheeses of Brie, particularly those made near Meaux, the Angelots, the Maroles in Hainault, those of Guise in Picardy, of Neufchatel, of Pont-Levesque, of Livarot in Normandy, and several others, which are sent to Paris from the nearest regions.... 
One gets from Grenoble Capital of the Dauphiné via Lyons, a sort of Cheese called Sassenage, from the name of the region where the most is made. This type of Cheese which is in small round loaves four to five inches thick, four to eight pounds in weight, is highly esteemed, when it bears all its good qualities, which are to not at all be old, that the body be parsleyed, that is, strew with bluish veins, and that its taste be agreeable, if a little sharp.
Roquefort Cheese, which is made with sheep's milk, bears the name of the place where it is made in the Region of Languedoc. It is flat, round like a cake, an inch and a half or at most two inches thick. If it is not well "parsleyed", and of a pleasant and sweet taste, little is thought of it. It comes in weights from four up to eight pounds.
From Rouanne, a City in the Country of Forest, come small fat Cheeses whose sides are reddish, called Roche Cheeses, which are from cow's milk. They are round and thick, about two pounds weight, the newest and the softest being the most esteemed.
Upper Auvergne provides a very large number of Cheeses all of cow's milk. There are large and small ones. The large, normally called Quantal [sic], because of a mountain of this name..., where the most are made, is thirty to forty pounds in weight. It is also called Monk's Head, because of its form, which is high and round.
(Note again a cheese referred to as a “monk's head”.)
The small Auvergne Cheeses, whose shape is almost square, weigh from ten to twenty pounds. Little of these come here; they are almost all consumed in the Country and its surroundings.
Though a rather considerable trade of Quantal Cheese exists in France, it must be said that it is one of the least esteemed of all the sorts of Cheeses mentioned: and if it were not for the common folk and the Religious Communities which consume a great deal of it, because of its price which is very modest, one would see very little in Paris, and in other major Cities of the Kingdom.
The Auvergne Cheeses made near Orillac, Moriac and Volers go to Languedoc and Guienne; and those made near Bese, La Tour and Ardres, go to Nantes, and the Cities of the Loire. It is also from there that come almost all which come to Paris.
De Bruslons also comments on cheese under “Grocers”: “Fruiterers, exclusively from Grocers, have the right to sell eggs, fresh butter, white cheeses, and other new and fresh cheeses, such as cheeses of Brie, Pont-l'Évêque, Beauvais, Marolles and Angelots...”

Not quite there...

Past the mid-point of the eighteenth century, then, a number of today's well-known cheeses had already established their reputations: Cantal, Roquefort, NeufchâtelPont-l'Évêque, and, of course, almost implacably, Brie. A number of others that began to be named after the Middle Ages are either forgotten or known only to specialists. And Chaource, Crottin de Chavignol, Fourme d'Ambert, Mimolette, Vacherin, Reblochon, Rocamadour, Saint-Nectare, Tomme de Savoie – to name just a few? No doubt some of these already existed and had at least some local reputation. But one looks in vain for them in the lists above. Even Camembert, so similar to Brie, is absent. Though those that do appear are not unappetizing, for today's cheese-lover, they would constitute a rather meager cheese-plate.

It would seem that the primacy of French cheese came later, very probably, with improved transportation, in the nineteenth century. But as of the eighteenth, it was still only tending towards what it would become.


Confluentia, Pantaleon de Pillularium omnibus medicis quam necessarium clarissimi docto. magistri ...


For modern translations from Chez Jim Books, see:

Le Grand d'Aussy, Pierre Jean-Baptiste, Eggs, Cheese and Butter in Old Regime France

Anthimus, How to Cook an Early French Peacock, a translation from the Latin of Anthimus' De Observatione Ciborum

How to Cook a Golden Peacock, a translation of the lesser-known medieval cookbook Enseingnemenz Qui Enseingnent à Apareillier Toutes Manières de Viandes

Taillevent, How To Cook a Peacock: LE VIANDIER - Medieval Recipes by Taillevent

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