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 paninis 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. Missed the first post on recipes of Ancient Rome? Take a look!.
Follow me back to a time of steam power and burning coal. Cobblestones line the streets, and children run joyously off to their factory jobs creating industrial goods. It’s the good ol’ Dickensian age of mechanization and modernity, and it’s the subject of this week’s examination of cheese recipes.
When researching these recipes, an interesting divide appeared between my expectations and historical reality. The industrial revolution was the death knell of British cuisine in many senses, and that reputation persists to this day. Population booms and chronic malnutrition caused the gross adulteration of good food, and lower classes suffered the worst of all our stereotypes of English food. That had little effect, however, on the people who purchased books on the so-called “art of cookery.” People in that position did not need to fix their expectations to the changing times nearly as much. Modern recipe hunters mostly will find relics of the esoteric tastes of the upper-classes, but don’t worry—those tastes were assuredly weird and specific.
The first thing I noticed was a presence of a rather strange ingredient. John Mollard’s The Art of Cookery invites me to color my cheese with a salamander. He invites me to do so in nine different recipes, actually. This excerpt is from instructions on how to make macaroni:
To stew Maccaroni.
Boil a quarter of a pound of riband maccaroni in beef stock till nearly done; then strain it and add a gill of cream, two ounces of fresh butter, a table spoonful of the essence of ham, three ounces of grated parmezan cheese, and a little cayenne pepper and salt. Mix them over a fire for five minutes, then put it on a dish, strew grated parmezan cheese over it, smooth it with a knife, and colour with a very hot salamander.
Naturally, I found this intriguing, so I looked into it. As it turns out, salamanders are a type of kitchen appliance used for browning. In the age of John Mollard, they were rather austere additions in a kitchen. Salamanders originally were big metal shovels that were heated by shoving them in hot coals. They were pretty much standard in cheese recipes, for everyone seemed to want extra care taken to the melting of their cheese. This also suggests a high degree of selectivity in the presentation of the dish. The melting and color had to be just so, which is why a device like a salamander was standard.
Next up is a rather strange pairing suggestion from Miss Leslie’s New Cookery Book called “Epicurean Sauce.” Take a look:
EPICUREAN SAUCE.—Pound in a mortar five or six anchovies; a heaped table-spoonful of minced tarragon leaves; a shalot, or very small onion, two or three pickled gherkins, finely minced; the yolks of four hard-boiled eggs, a quarter of a pound of fresh butter, and a large table-spoonful of French mustard. If you have no good butter, mix a sufficient portion of olive oil to moisten it well. Let the whole be thoroughly mixed. Put it into a bowl, and set it on ice till wanted. Then mould it into pats of equal size. Arrange them on small glass or china plates, and send them to table for dinner company, to eat with the cheese.
This would certainly be a briny, sour pairing that would require a stout and bold cheese. Maybe a good washed-rind? I think I’ll stick to more conventional options for the time being.
Miss Leslie also recommends flavoring mac and cheese with rosewater and nutmeg, and she often requests that cheese tastes “dominate” in recipes. A woman of my own heart.
Interestingly, in every book I could find, cheese is referred to as a universal. There is no gouda or feta, no soft or semi-soft or bloomy or stinky or any categories whatsoever. If a recipe calls for cheese, it merely states “cheese.” Indeed, this guide claims to have a universal standard for good cheese:
Cheese—The red smooth moist coated, and tight pressed, square edged Cheese, are better than white coat, hard rinded, or bilged; the inside should be yellow, and flavored to your taste. Old shelves which have only been wiped down for years, are preferable to scoured and washed shelves. Deceits are used by salt-petering the out side, or colouring with hemlock, cocumberries, or safron, infused into the milk; the taste of either supercedes every possible evasion.
We are lucky we don’t have to deal with Victorian standards for cheese these days—this was far from an egalitarian cheese world, both for the product and for the consumer.