The moveable feast : Say cheese


My colleague, friend and assistant Rajan decided it was time we wrote about cheese considering cheeses were already around 5,000 years ago.

Sumerians and Egyptians were making cheese from cows’ and goats’ milk and storing it in tall jars. The method was to let the milk curdle, beat it with branches, press it on stones, dry it in the sun, sprinkling it with salt.

We hear about it in about 11th century in the Bible when a Hebrew shepherd boy called David is sent by his father to present 10 cheeses to the captain of an army.

Strangely, eastwards from what is now the Middle East, cheese didn’t figure and even now it is not as popular as it might be. This despite the fact that Nepal has developed two very good cheeses — an aged Kanchan and the Cheddary Nak cheese.

A traveller in 370 BC notes, “Cheese is a popular food item in Greece. The Greeks are so fond of goats’ or ewes’ cheese that they reward their children with it as others might give them candy. ‘Little Cheese’ is a special term of endearment.”

But these cheeses weren’t the kinds that were sharp and strong enough (the joke went) to crawl across the table referring to the fungus that made the cheese strong including Penicillin.

The Emperor Charlemagne came upon one of these, a blue cheese, Brie which he called “the most marvellous of foods”. He had two mule loads of his favourite blue cheese sent to his palace every Christmas.

A little after, The Domesday Book, which was written in 1086 BC and talks about William the Conqueror’s survey of England mentioning Britain’s first named cheese — the Cheshire cheese. As popular today as it was then.

Henry II popularised a hard cows’ milk Cheshire cheese by declaring it the best in England and by the 15th century there was enough cheese around to write a whole book on it called Summa Lacticiniorum.

As we come nearer to the present, at the end of the 18th century we find a Marie Harel from the Auge region of Normandy developing a new cow milk cheese by combining the method using Normandy with that used in Brie. His daughter set herself up in local village of Camembert to sell the cheese. Thus Camembert.

Charles-Maurice-de Talleyrand, a great connoisseur proclaimed Brie, the king of cheeses at a dinner during the congress. This in response to the Austrian foreign minister who identified his cooks with chocolate cake as the king of cakes.

There is some confusion about one of the world’s great blue cheeses. Made from French ewe’s milk, Roquefort pre-dates Brie. It was mentioned in the Greek writings of Pliny, the elder, and it was according to the Larousse Gastronomique, Charlemagne’s favourite cheese.

Legend has a goat herd eating his cheese lunch when he saw a girl many miles away. So he went off. Then he came back. And his cheese attacked by Penicillium had changed to Roquefort.

So we have Roquefort and Brie as the king of cheeses. But then the Italians decided their Parmigiano Reggiano was also kingly and the British said their Stilton was monarch.

What is interesting is that most of the cheeses except the Parmesan, a hard cheese, are blue cheeses with the bite you don’t get with a hard cheese.

Here one waits for suppliers to bring precious consignment of, say, Danish Bleu probably known as the king of cheeses in Denmark. I am eating a bit as I write, hoping I can stretch it until the next time.