Thursday, February 28, 2008

And They Ate it Anyway… The Caves and our Cultural Heritage

by Zoe Brickley, Murray's Affineur

“Behind every cheese there is a pasture of a different green under a different sky: meadows encrusted with salt that the tides of Normandy deposit every evening; meadows perfumed with aromas in the windy sunlight of Provence; there are different herds, with their shelters and their movements across the countryside; there are secret methods handed down over the centuries. [These caves are] a museum… behind every displayed object the presence of the civilization that gave it form and takes form from it.”

-Italo Calvino, Palomar, 1983

Isn’t that fun to think about? Sometimes I feel more like a curator than an inventory manager – caring for fine examples of living history and brokering deals between the buying and selling teams. It’s a good thing that cheese is so fleeting in its prime, or we would be tempted to fill the caves up, and seal them off as a perfect exhibit of these varied stories.

I like to joke that at some point in every cheese’s saga there is a point where something goes wrong – like a mutated gene in the evolution of a species – but either out of necessity or curiosity somebody eats it, despite the apparent flaw, and decides that they’re on to something. In the big picture it begins to look a lot like natural selection; the domestication of a crop whereby a favored plant yields to the forks and turns of humanity’s evolution.

Let’s take the legend of rennet’s discovery for example – that magical enzymatic catalyst, which transforms liquid milk into curds and whey: As the story goes, back in the time when people used dried stomach linings as canteens (perhaps around the year 3000 BCE), an Arab trader thought to bring milk along to nourish and hydrate him on a day’s journey. When he went to drink he noticed that his beverage had quite a different consistency. Scientifically speaking, the rennet enzyme, still active in that dried container (from the tummy of a young calf, yet un-weaned) effectively curdled the milk by re-arranging its proteins into a semi-solid meshwork. The traveler, either parched or hungry, ate the contents and behold – he was pleased!

Rennet is still used today for that crucial step in cheese-making, though synthetic microbial (vegetarian) coagulants are often used in contemporary production. And true vegetable rennets like cardoon thistles and wild artichokes were discovered by people in ancient Portugal and Spain after grazing sheep gorged on the roughage only to give milk that curdled shortly after harvesting. Again, somebody probably had to drink the odd-looking milk to solve that puzzle.

Or how about the monks? They diligently washed developing mold spots from their young cheeses for the sake of purity and cleanliness, only to find an unusual sticky, bright orange surface layer develop. Unbeknownst to the well meaning brethren, they had cultivated a bacterial culture on their cheeses, known today as Brevibacterium Linens. The fact that they used the only sanitary liquids around, booze or boiled salted water, and the regimented way they organized their day further served to consistently select these ripening microbes – which prefer the resulting pH and salt levels. Its plain to see why they kept it up – these ‘washed-rind’ stinky cheeses are famed today for their unctuous puddingy texture and pungent, earthy aromas.

Only nowadays, cheese-makers try to replicate the same set of qualifying conditions that just happened to suit the lifestyle and inclinations of those monastic traditions.

That’s the exciting and tricky thing about modern cheese-making. Sure we’ve perfected the art of refrigeration; we have finely calibrated instruments for measuring temperature, pH, and humidity – as well as others for checking fat, protein and microbe content of milk and cheese. And further, in the places where artisan cheese is being invented these days, basic food needs are pretty well covered. So now, instead of the end (hunger) shaping the means, the means (artistic vision and skilled craftsmanship) must guide a focused end-product.

The challenges facing these cultural visionaries today will be looked at in subsequent posts. But today, let’s marvel at the sheer number of cheeses that, due to the happenstance of climate, tradition, and speciation, have sprung from a relatively small, though rapidly expanding portion of planet earth. It kind of speaks to the diversity of things that humans have been up to since the dawn of time – and how thorough we have been with our innate instruments, which detect ‘food’ and ‘not-food.’

Ooh, by the way – someone’s food radar broke out there in mail-order land: The other day somebody called up about the bland jelly they received in their fed-exed gift box. Armed with her A-1 investigative skills, our kind and patient operator finally deduced that somebody ate the ice pack. Yep – someone partially consumed the thawed gel refrigerant pack and then called up to complain about the taste. It’s true! (It was non-toxic, and our customer had a full recovery.) But that serves as a fine example of a substance that will remain a mere blip on the unfolding timeline of our species’ menu.

So go out there and google your favorite cheeses. Or look them up in the The Cheese Primer to uncover that point at which ‘somebody ate it anyway’. If anything else it will be an ice-breaker at your next schmancy get-together.

Go Big or Go Home Reading Assignment: Cheeses of the World – a big, impressive, looking coffee-table book that’s actually chock full of interesting stuff behind all of our favorite artifacts. And Wikipedia (the online collaborative encyclopedia) tracks a pretty good history of cheese and otherwise.

Cheese You Must Seek Out and Devour: Cato Corner Farm’s Hooligan. Mark Gillman created this cheese with his newfangled equipment in that old-world washed-rind style. The name gives away its rowdy pungent kick – but it doesn’t tell you about the soft side of this rascal – the inside that is, where you’ll find a gooey, fudgey texture and balanced flavor. Don’t worry; with most washers and rapscallions alike their bark is worse than their bite – so don’t let the stink scare you away!