I have often wondered what ancient cheeses were like. My best guess is that they were really intense and kind of gross. The discovery of cheese is something of a legend, somewhere between 8000 and 3000 BCE a traveller set out on a journey with a lamb’s stomach filled with fresh milk and, by evening, the milk had curdled into something like cottage-cheese. Yum!! I don’t know how many of you readers have ever taken a sheep’s stomach and sewed it up yourselves but I imagine the end result is somewhat rustic. And smelly. The last thing I would want to do is fill it with milk and drink it.
Did you ever see the episode of Man vs. Wild where Bear skins a sheep and then sleeps in it, inside-out? He skins the sheep by unrolling the skin from the body like he was undressing the sheep, if they sheep was wearing really tight pants. In any case, it looks really gross and this is the sort of imagery that comes to mind when I think about that first cheese. Let’s get back on track…
Move forward a few thousand years to ancient Rome, a sophisticated society. The Romans built aqueducts, they invented concrete, they built the Pantheon, they made major advancements in sanitation! They were reputed have a sophisticated gastronomic culture full of banquets and parties, they must have made delicious cheeses. I have a fantastic book, Around the Roman Table, by Patrick Faas that explains a lot about their food culture. Here, my images of cheesemaking are more civilized than that first sheep skin; I envision the hand woven baskets, dark cellars, and pots on open fires as described by L.I.M. Comella in Re Rustica. However, further reading in Around the Roman Table leads me to believe that cheeses probably tasted relatively rustic then, too. Faas says that “Romans liked old cheese, caseus senescentus.” And why not? I like two-year parmigiano reggiano! But you know, Faas also says that “Romans didn’t like to throw things away when they’d ‘developed a goaty whiff’ to use Apicius’ phrase”. Hmm.
And then I got to this part,
“According to Pliny, animals with two nipples – goats and sheep – made the best cheese. Milk from animals with more than four nipples, like cats and dogs, was unsuitable. Cheese was made from horse milk and donkey milk. Camel cheese was also highly valued. Milk of the hare and the deer was turned into cheese, and rabbit-milk cheese was supposed to cure diarrhoea. The cow has four nipples; its cheese was therefore inferior but popular nevertheless, partly because the cow produced great quantities of milk. Cow’s-milk cheese was considered nutritious but hard to digest.”
Okay, sheep cheese, goat cheese and cow cheese all get the thumbs up from me. If the Romans really liked that camel cheese, then I don’t know if their taste for cheeses could be described as highly refined because I’ve had camel milk cheese. I tried it by accident. It was mixed in with other cheeses on the staff table at the cheese shop. And oh, boy, it was one of the most disgusting things I’ve ever eaten!! It was one of the strongest cheeses I’ve ever tasted. It was so gross, I was scraping my tongue with bread and crackers like mad. I haven’t tried pee but, the camel cheese tasted like camel pee. I can only imagine that without refrigeration the Romans tried to age their otherwise innocent sheep and goat milk cheeses to match the strength of camel cheese! Yuck! And just imagine that donkey cheese! I would hate to accidentally taste donkey cheese! I will happily stick to the present from now on. (E)