cheese is history

Many people ask me: how and why did I come to develop the ashen, bloomy Witchgrass? 

There are several layers in the answer to this question - personal, geographical and historical. 

For one, I love mold. I love all it can do for cheese - preserve and protect it, develop interesting flavor complexes, and most importantly, break down the proteins that convert a tangy, fresh cheese into a layered, decadent paste. I find these cheeses not only the most interesting to eat and share at a table, but also the most fascinating to make. It is exciting to watch the blanket of white mold grow on the surface, turning a round of yellow cheese into a fluffy, white cloud. And I love to observe the ripening process from the surface-in, evidenced only with the breaking of the seal and the first slice into a Crottin.

But of course, the origins of a lactic bloomy extend much further than this love affair. 

The true answer lies in a history lesson.

This type of cheese, along with many of France’s best, developed in the home kitchen of a French peasant farmer in the Middle Ages. The story is worth telling because it represents the cornerstone in the evolution from simple fresh and pressed cheeses to the more complex, surface-ripened ones we know and love today.

As had been commonplace for several thousand years before Medieval times, milk was turned into cheese for the purposes of storage and nutrition (in early human history, we were still evolving a tolerance for lactose, and cheese was discovered to be the only means of digesting milk). Cheese was both a primary food source for the peasant families as well as a part of the rent they paid to their landlords. And the types of cheeses that developed during this period - the soft ripened, lactic curd, bloomy rind cheeses of the world - did so as a direct result of the climate, social structures and division of household work duties of these times.

Peasants living in the Middle Ages in northwestern Europe subsisted as tenant farmers, renting land from manor lords to grow crops and pasture animals. These peasants grazed cows on common lands while their landlords’ fields were used during the growing season. In the off season, the cows were allowed to graze on the stubble after harvest. Given this limited feed supply, a peasant could keep only a cow or two at the most, and these cows yielded a very small volume of milk, probably about one gallon a day.

This limited milk supply is an important factor in the evolution of ancient cheeses, and it was compounded by the role of the woman on the farm. Since the responsibility of growing food kept the men in the fields all day, it became the woman’s role to take care of all the rest. She tended to the chickens and pigs, brought grain to the miller and baked bread with the flour, tended to the herb garden, cared for the children, did the cooking, spun and weaved wool and flax into clothing and blankets, and mastered the fermentations of brewing beer and - most importantly to this story - making cheese. 

Here is the critical part: considering her extensive list of wifely duties, the peasant cheesemaker would have not have had time to make cheese with such a small volume of milk after each milking. She found it most efficient to pool milk from two milkings so that the process of making cheese was worth her while, and so that she had a larger volume to work with.

The pooling of milk from two or more milkings was possible thanks to the cooler, damper climate of northwestern Europe. While recipes evolved from the European peasants’ Mediterranean cheesemaking forbears who could make only fresh cheeses for immediate consumption, the northerners could store milk at a reasonable temperature for a short period of time for the first time in cheese making history.

It was in these very hours of milk storage that the great cheeses of Europe were born. During milk storage, bacteria naturally present in the milk would have the opportunity to get a head start on fermentation, converting lactose milk sugars into acid. This slow, natural acidification of the milk before coagulation is what helped it develop the flavors and textures of more complex cheeses. 

The final tipping point is this: the cool, damp climate that allowed these families to store milk for a day was the same environment that allowed for the storage of the finished cheese, as well. Cheeses were made using similar methods of the fresh cheeses of the Mediterranean, but could be stored in a cool, damp climate, which fostered the growth of all sorts of yeasts and molds on the cheese surface. These natural rinds served two purposes: they preserved the cheese for longer periods of time (as a blanket of white mold is competition enough for unwanted molds and bacteria), and the rinds also ripened the cheeses from the outside-in, allowing for the breakdown of proteins that lead to creamy, oozy textures.

Once the cheesemaker discovered these variables and their effects on the outcome of the cheese, she could begin to play around with the parameters to yield a wide variety of cheeses. It’s no wonder that, in time, France developed several hundred varieties and many of the world’s most complex cheeses.

And there it is: an evolution in cheese that took place out of practicality and led to the highly impractical, indulgent cheeses we adore today. 

* A special thanks to Paul Kindstedt for all of his wonderful research on the history of cheese. Read more in his book, Cheese and Culture.


Posted on September 5, 2014 .