Medieval Cheese, or Reader Mail

For some reason, people seem to think that I’m an expert on the Middle Ages, and so from time to time I get polite inquiries in my inbox asking for help on this or that medieval topic. Usually, I am woefully ill-informed, and I beg them off with a joke. But one lucky reader managed to pique my interest enough for me to try to help. Here is the question:

“Umm, I know this question may seem a bit odd, but I would appreciate any answer you could give me. Could you possibly tell me what cheese was like in the Middle Ages? I doubt it was anything like the Tillamook you can go and buy in the local grocery store, all nicely wrapped in orange and black plastic, and would love to know what it’s like. I just need to know what it looked like, how they wrapped it for travel, and how they ate it.

It seems like a really silly question, but it’s really important.”

A few questions naturally came to mind upon reading the email. First, which of my blog posts caused this nice person to think that I’d know anything about cheese? I suspected that maybe for reasons only known to Google my blog popped up first when you do a search on medieval cheese, but alas, my blog only appears highly on the Google index if you search for it by my name or its.* A search for ‘medieval cheese’ won’t pull Got Medieval up in the first 10 pages of links. About the only medieval search combination I’ve come up with that’s managed to put me at the top of the page is ‘medieval tom wopat’.** The second question is, obviously, what is Tillamook? which is followed closely by the third, which is, if I don’t know what Tillamook is, what chance do I have at answering a question about medieval cheese?*** And the final question is how could it ever be really important that someone know about medieval cheese?

So I’m no expert on cheese, but I do know where in the library they keep the books on medieval things, and the answer to the question turns out to be the answer to a lot of questions about the Middle Ages: it depends what you mean by ‘medieval cheese’.

For example, a lot of research has gone into determining whether this or that named variety of cheese has an ancient or medieval pedigree. There are references to Feta, Romano, Munster, Gorganzola, Roquefort, Wensleydale, Emmental (or Swiss), Brie and even Cheddar in the Middle Ages or before (though Cheddar only slips in in 1500). A lot of guides to medieval food, like, will confidently advocate these as “authentic” medieval cheeses. The problem, however, is that just because a cheese named the same as a modern cheese is referenced doesn’t mean that its medieval counterpart was in any way similar. Though Roquefort and Brie may have been making cheese for hundreds of years, the cheeses they’ve been making in that have changed drastically.

A helpful professor directed my coded cheese inquiry**** to a treatise of the 15th century on cheese by someone named Pantaleone da Confienza. There is an edition by Irma Naso, an Italian grad student, called Formaggi del medioeveo, la Summa Laticiniorum di Pantaleone da Confienza.***** Since both my Italian and my corrupted Northern Italian Latin are not the best, I had to make do with an article in a French culinary history by Bruno Laurioux, “Du Brehemont et d’autres fromages renommes au XV siecle,” from Une histoire culinaire du moyen age.

Basically, according to Laurioux, the cheeses of the Middle Ages were not that different, but in the records that remain, we don’t get very good descriptions of their consistency or even if they were made with sheep, cow or goat’s milk. In brief, medieval cheese was about like our modern cheeses: highly variable in appearance, taste, and type. Excepting Velveeta and Easy Cheese, of course–though like these two unholy modern contrivances, medieval cheese was likely pretty salty, so as to help it keep better.

Food and Feast in Medieval England probably has the best answer to the question of what medieval cheese was like, and it definitely has the best answer involving the word ‘spermyse’:******

“Cheese was available in four main varieties: hard (probably of a cheddar type), soft (or cream cheese), green cheese (a very new soft cheese [basically a brick of compressed curds]) and ‘spermyse’ (cream cheese flavoured with herbs).”

Incidentally, Food in Early Modern Europe claims that “Physicians often recommended cheese at the end of a meal to seal off the contents of the stomach while it “concocted” the food and to prevent noxious fumes from rising to the head. I don’t know if that’s true, since no footnotes are given to trace the source, but it’s funny, and funny things make it to my blog much more quickly than true things.

Also, according to many sources, cheese-production was no penny ante affair. Just because they didn’t have fancy stainless steel machines didn’t mean that medieval folk couldn’t make a lot of cheese when they wanted to. There are records of Essex cheeses being sold in gigantic “weys,” or round wheels or flattened balls of several hundred pounds. As for storing and transporting–one reason cheese was made was because it was a good way to store and transport milk in a time before refrigeration and Saran Wrap. Many cheeses make a good thick rind naturally when exposed to air.

The main problem, then with medieval cheese, is that if you try to serve cheese to people who are interested in having some medieval cheese, they’re likely to be underwhelmed. Modern cheese, being reasonably similar to its medieval counterpart, isn’t going to feel medieval enough to satisfy the craving for authenticness or exoticness. If you need to serve exotic cheese, definitely go for the spermyse, and be sure to label it ‘spermyse’ in a font that is thick and pointy.

In my research, I also came across a recipe for chunks of Brie mixed with honey and mustard that, if not medieval, sounds darn tasty.******* I’ll probably serve it as an appetizer at my next dinner party.

Anyway, I hope this answers my communicant’s question, or at the very least explains to potential communicants why I’m a bad person to ask specific questions to. I will, however, try to work your favorite 80’s childhood indulgence into a joke about medieval torture practices on request.

*At last, I’ve finally passed Carolyn Dinshaw’s Got Medieval? article from the Journal of the History of Sexuality on Google’s page-rankings.
**Thanks to a Dukes of Hazzard reference I made a few months ago. Searching for ‘medieval dukes of hazzard’ however brings up pages of video game reviews for Dukes of Hazzard 2: the Return of the General Lee on pages that also mention that Medieval: Total War 2 is coming out this year. I’m not even the top link to ‘medieval voltron’ or ‘medieval cartman,’ so I think it’s official: I’m a pop-culture medieval failure.
***Tillamook is apparently a cheese-making company from Oregon that provides 20% of the US’s cheese, including some varieties whose receipes are over 100 years old.
****Coded, because I didn’t want him to know it was for a blog, for reasons discussed previously. But not very well-coded, because there are just not that many reasons to email a professor out of the blue with an email along the lines of, “So, a friend of mine has a blog about medieval cheese, and he wanted me to ask…”
*****Either my prof has a greatly inflated opinion of my late medieval Latin, or directing me to the cheese treatise was his way of saying, “Oh, I bet you don’t really want to know about medieval cheese.”
******I feel it necessary to mention that I just got volume 3 of the Beavis and Butthead collection for my birthday.
******* The recipe is this: make some chunks of Brie, drizzle it with honey, and then mix that with some fancy seeded mustard. I don’t think French’s will do.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • cardinal_wolsey

    a middle english version of the famous Monty Python cheese shop sketch would be good…any volunteers?

  • Catriona

    If you’re looking to re-create the middle ages, look to people who re-create the middle ages–like the Society for Creative Anachronism. Some of us do real research, you know. I found several articles on cheese making at Stefan’s Florilegium in the food section:

  • Ecce Equus Pallidus

    I will, however, try to work your favorite 80’s childhood indulgence into a joke about medieval torture practices on request.

    I cast my vote for A-Ha’s “Take on Me” video.

  • LLCoolCarlIII

    Eesh. Good reference! Don’t know if I can pull that off, but I’ll get right on it.

  • Marge

    Late comer to this discussion, but still. When I was a child I remember being confused at the part of the story of ‘Jack the Giant Killer’ where he squeezes the cheese and water comes out. It really didn’t make any sense until I came across ‘proper’ mozerella for the first time. How old that particular story is I don’t know, but it does assume a common knowledge of ‘wet’ cheeses.

    I’ve also seen the hypothesis that mature cheeses were the preserve of the rich, as other people didn’t have the luxury of sitting around watching all those lovely lumps of saturated fat without eating them!

  • LLCoolCarlIII

    I actually remember trying as a child to squeeze water from a cheese–Velveta, probably–and deciding that the people in the story were just not very observant.

  • Oksana

    I had to make do with an article in a French culinary history by Bruno Laurioux, “Du Brehemont et d’autres fromages renommes au XV siecle,” from Une histoire culinaire du moyen age.

    That article about history of French cuisine is very interesting.

  • My medieval masters has renaissance bits…

    Off cheeses I’m afraid, but you do get higher on google if you put in Sacred Blood Virgin’s Milk. It gives you number 2 with the post about South Park getting Medieval. On the other hand that is a fairly straight medieval search not some clever amalgam of modern cult tv and the word medieval. Sorry.

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