At the Tables of the Monks: Charlemagne Loved Cheese (Part IV)

In the Refectory
In the Refectory
Charlemagne, by Albrecht Durer
Charlemagne, by Albrecht Durer

A possibly apocryphal story, told  in many places — print and Internet — reads something like this:

After a long day of traveling, the emperor Charlemagne stopped at a bishop’s residence to rest, conveniently at dinnertime. In a ninth-century biography of Charlemagne, written by an erudite monk at St. Gall monastery in Switzerland, the author says,

Now on that day, being the sixth day of the week [Friday], he was not willing to eat the flesh of beast or bird.  The bishop, being by reason of the nature of the place unable to procure fish immediately, ordered some excellent cheese, white with fat, to be placed before him. Charles….. required nothing else, but taking up his knife and throwing away the mold, which seemed to him abominable, he ate the white of the cheese. Then the bishop, who was standing nearby like a servant, drew close and said “Why do you do that, lord Emperor? You are throwing away the best part.” On the persuasion of the bishop, Charles….. put a piece of the mold in his mouth and slowly ate it and swallowed it like butter. Then, approving the bishop’s advice, he said “Very true, my good host,” and he added, “Be sure to send me every year two cartloads of such cheeses.”

And a pack train of mules complied, appearing every Christmas at Charlemagne’s palace in Aix-la-Chapelle with what most people think was Roquefort cheese.

Of course, storing all that cheese must have given Charlemagne and his entourage some pause and a few moments of queasiness as time went by.

But we’re getting away from the main story, which deals more with the cheeses produced by monks.

First, a little etymology.

“Fromage,” the French word for cheese came into use around 1180, replacing “formage,” generated by Latin slang, “formaticus”, meaning “made in a mold.”

Wapedia goes farther and in more detail:

When the Romans began to make hard cheeses for their legionaries’ supplies, a new word started to be used: formaticum, from caseus formatus, or “molded cheese” (as in “formed”, not “molded”). It is from this word that we get the French fromage, Italian formaggio, Catalan formatge, Breton fourmaj and Provençal furmo. Cheese itself is occasionally employed in a sense that means “molded” or “formed”. Head cheese uses the word in this sense.

Although the early monks wrote about many things, grazed their cows and goats, and ate cheese elaborated from the milk of those animals, they left very little written information about exactly how they almost magically transformed curdled milk into cheeses we still savor today, some named after the monasteries that spawned them:

Belleaye, Chaligny, Beval, Briquebec, Champaneac, Chambarand, Citeax, Cluny, Conques, Igny, Laval, Mont-Des-Cats, Munster, Saint-Maur, Tamie, Maroilles, Port Salut, Saint-Nectaire, Parmigiano-Reggiano, Brie, Gorgonzola, Tête de Moine

Benedictine Monk (Portrait by Hugh van der Goes)
Benedictine Monk (Portrait by Hugh van der Goes)

Cistercian monks invented wash-rind cheeses, among other types. The washing with various solutions causes beneficial bacteria to permeate the cheese curds, creating different flavors and textures. Ripening cheeses over time increases the impact of the various agents used to make cheese into something more than milk curds: bacteria, milk enzymes, lactic acid, rennet, lipases, mold and yeast inoculates, and environmental materials.

To modern people, the odor of washed-rind cheese often smells of death.

Ah, fermentation! What joys ye wrought. (Rot?)

To be continued.

© 2009 C. Bertelsen

6 thoughts on “At the Tables of the Monks: Charlemagne Loved Cheese (Part IV)

  1. How interesting! Both the etymology and the humor, I find very entertaining. Thanks for all the research and readable history!

  2. Cindy, Every time I read your blog, I learn something new and very useful!

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