Many are aware that cheese has been around for thousands of years, predating most trappings of civilization. Less widely known are the culinary uses of cheese throughout history. We haven’t always flocked to kitchens with visions of panini and macaroni. We’ve actually come a long way in figuring out what to do with this rather odd food item. This short blog series will highlight a couple of our favorite uses of cheese throughout history.
Although the culinary term “Apicius” has become a catch-all for all things gourmet, Apicius was, at one point, a living and breathing man. And not just any man—he was the Barefoot Contessa of Imperial Rome. He was one of the founding fathers of cooking, not just as a practice but as an art. Even in his own time he was revered as a sort of savory demi-god, much like Ina of the latter-day. In the words of contemporary writer Athenaeus, “He spent myriads of drachmas on his belly, living chiefly at Minturnæ, a city of Campania, eating very expensive crawfish, which are found in that place superior in size to those of Smyrna, or even to the crabs of Alexandria.”
We are less likely to remember his drachmas or his belly than the cookbook that bears his name. Apicius: Cookery and Dining in Imperial Rome may be less widely read than Virgil, but it certainly goes down easier on an empty stomach. Two things worth keeping in mind when you peruse the book (which is free on Project Gutenberg, by the way) are the limited availability of meat and paper at the time. What that means is that there is some false advertising, and very limited instructions.
This is where cheese comes in. When other ingredients were rare, flavors could be approximated with cheese. This was perhaps exacerbated by Apicius’s proclivity of disguising food as other food. In later ages this would be known as a “deceit.” It is unclear whether people were actually fooled by this trickery. In the 18th-century recipe “To make a Hedgehog,” for instance, there is no doubt that you are not eating hedgehog. It seems possible that Apicius was a little more opaque with his fakeries.
Conversely, you can’t always count on cheese to be cheese. Take a look at this recipe for “Boiled Dinner”:
PEPPER, FRESH MINT, CELERY, DRY PENNYROYAL, CHEESE, PIGNOLIA NUTS, HONEY, VINEGAR, BROTH, YOLKS OF EGG, FRESH WATER, SOAKED BREAD AND THE LIQUID PRESSED OUT, COW’S CHEESE AND CUCUMBERS ARE ARRANGED IN A DISH, ALTERNATELY, WITH THE NUTS; [also add] FINELY CHOPPED CAPERS, CHICKEN LIVERS; COVER COMPLETELY WITH [a lukewarm, congealing] BROTH, PLACE ON ICE [and when congealed unmould and] SERVE UP.
If you can get over how unappealing this sounds, you might recognize a resemblance to head cheese. In fact, the main difference is that head cheese doesn’t actually have any cheese in it. It seems possible that after substituting cheese for pork, the name stayed the same. Tricky Apicius.
You may also have noticed the rather curt tone of the recipe. Apicius wasn’t the most adept at Pinterest, clearly. This reflects both the lack of available paper and the chef’s belief that people could probably figure out what he meant. Unfortunately, it means that recipes like this one for “Apician Jelly” are difficult to parse out:
PUT IN THE MORTAR CELERY SEED, DRY PENNYROYAL, DRY MINT, GINGER, FRESH CORIANDER, SEEDLESS RAISINS, HONEY, VINEGAR, OIL AND WINE; CRUSH IT TOGETHER [in order to make a dressing of it]. [Now] PLACE 3 PIECES OF PICENTIAN BREAD IN A MOULD, INTERLINED WITH PIECES OF [cooked] CHICKEN, [cooked] SWEETBREADS OF CALF OR LAMB, CHEESE , PIGNOLIA NUTS, CUCUMBERS [pickles] FINELY CHOPPED DRY ONIONS [shallots] COVERING THE WHOLE WITH [jellified] BROTH. BURY THE MOULD IN SNOW UP TO THE RIM; [unmould] SPRINKLE [with the above dressing] AND SERVE.
It appears that Apicius is having us make a nice cheese and meat sandwich, covering it in jellified broth, freezing it in snow, then dumping salad dressing on it. Whatever you say, Apicius. On display in this recipe is his willingness to combine a wide variety of flavors, textures, and even temperatures of food. Eating at an Apician banquet certainly would be a feast for the senses. Perhaps his palate for tasting was less inhibited than the modern cheese connoisseur—maybe our prejudices and expectations are partially contrived. After all, he made a living out of roaming Mediterranean towns looking for the best crayfish boil. That’s more than most of us can say.
The cheese liberties taken in Imperial Rome were rather advanced, but did they have staying powers? Something tells me that things got a little more rote in pre-modern times. Tune in next week as we leap forward a few centuries to see what cheese got up to in Industrial Britain.