At the Table of the Monks: Cheese, Of Course (Part V)

Making White Cheese During the Middle Ages (From Tacuinum Sanitatis (ÖNB Codex Vindobonensis, series nova 2644), c. 1370-1400)
Making White Cheese During the Middle Ages (From Tacuinum Sanitatis (ÖNB Codex Vindobonensis, series nova 2644), c. 1370-1400)

Smelling like something dead, washed-rind cheeses* with their soft non-acidic centers offered a taste of animal protein to medieval monks prohibited from eating meat for over 100 days in the average liturgical year.

The fact that these cloistered souls liked the results of their odiferous labor ought to cause us to wonder something: what did their meat taste like when they ate that?

But we’re thinking of cheese, not the perfectly wrapped and labeled cheese available today from various Trappist monasteries and others, but, rather, dark rooms filled with rows of odd-shaped cheeses.

Making cheese, in the days before thermometers and climate control was a hit-or-miss affair. Throughout history, the goal of all cheese-making, at the very minimum, was (and is) to maintain a balance between the water, acid, and salt content during the ripening process.

Not surprisingly, given the lack of scientific understanding of the cheese-making process, the failure rate of most early cheese-makers, not just the monastics, was not small — poor hygiene and the changes of the seasons led to a round of superstitions as to why some cheeses succeeded and others flopped. One such folk belief attributed cheese disasters to menstruating dairymaids. One abbot went so far as to allow only old (post-menopausal?), ugly women to assist the brothers with their dairying duties. (Another probable cause lay with the temptations of young women for some of the monastery’s less committed younger brothers.)

Dairymen and Cheese Sellers (Mid 13th C., San Marco, Venice)
Dairymen and Cheese Sellers (Mid 13th C., San Marco, Venice)

In some commentaries on making cheese, the authors use such terms as “stir until thick,” “warm but do not overheat,” drain when firm” — all very unscientific and prone to various interpretations. Testing for warm but not overly heated? Imagine a 30-year-old monk, who last bathed fully (maybe) when he entered the monastery at age 18, and who just swept out the cow’s stall, sticking his fingers into the milk bubbling in the copper cauldron. Yes, the milk is warm enough to begin the curdling process. No more heating. No more chances to kill whatever bacteria lurked on the cow’s tail that the monk grabbed in an attempt to keep it from slashing across his face. (Note that the abbey at Clairvaux owned and manged over 900 head of cattle.)

Steps the monks followed in making cheese:

Step 1—Setting: Bacteria (either already swimming around in the milk or added to it) and enzymes derived from the stomach linings of milk-producing mammals and called rennet are added to the milk. The rennet shaves off the hydrophilic surface layer of the casein, causing the micelles to coagulate into what is called the curd.

For the rest of the eight steps, squeezing out the water, or liquid whey, from the cheese is a major goal, depending on the type of cheese. For example, cheddar cheese starts with a moisture content of 87 percent and that has to be reduced down to 37 percent, while brie retains more of its whey.

Step 2—Cutting: The curd is “cut” into smaller particles—the smaller the particle, the less water it holds, thus more whey is expelled from the curd. (So drier cheeses like cheddar will be cut into smaller particles than moister cheeses like brie.)

Step 3—Cooking: The curd is heated and stirred, which expels more whey.

Step 4—Draining: Draining separates more whey from the curd, depending on how dry the final cheese is supposed to be.

Step 5—Knitting: This step overlaps with draining; as the whey drains away, the curd particles come into contact with each other and stick into a bigger mass.

Step 6—Pressing: Weight is applied to the cheese to give it its final shape and to squeeze out more whey, depending on the type of cheese of course.

Step 7—Salting: Salt can be added by sprinkling or rubbing it on the cheese or by submerging the cheese in a salt brine; it continues to draw out whey.

Step 8—Special applications: These can include applying specific environmental conditions such as humidity and temperature or physical manipulations like turning the cheese while it ages. [This is where washed-rind solutions and added bacteria like Roquefort business come into play, as well as ashes.]

According food scientist, Paul Kindstedt, of the University of Vermont, “Traditional cheeses always originated because cheese makers had to adapt to the cultural and environmental constraints of their local world,” he said. “And they had to do things differently from one region to the next, because cheese makers in different regions face different constraints.”

Very true for monks’ cheeses. Terroir, anyone?

*Washings done with diverse solutions such as salty water, brandy, wine, and other liquids turn these rounds of cheese into lovely orange-red orbs, the color characteristic of these types of cheeses. Bacteria like Geotrichum Candidum and Brevibacterium linens work on the rinds and help to produce the characteristic colors.

To be continued after June 2, 2009.

© 2009 C. Bertelsen

3 thoughts on “At the Table of the Monks: Cheese, Of Course (Part V)

  1. Thanks, Jamie, for the comments — yes, some of the cheeses are a bit much for some people. yesterday, I went to the best local cheese place in town (which isn’t saying much) and asked the guy behind the counter about the Munster, was it real? He said, Of course! I said, does it knock your head off with the smell? And he couldn’t tell me. So I bought it any way. Guess what — it didn’t taste like anything I was expecting. VERY bland — nope, not the real deal!

  2. Smelling like something dead? LOL! This post is so interesting and funny! I love it.

    When I was first married to a Frenchman and cheese lover, my family came to visit us in France. Naturally, each meal ended with a huge cheese platter. Every time we brought out the cheese, my younger brother got up and left the house. Couldn’t stand the smell!

Comments are closed.