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Medieval Cheese: Just What the Doctor Ordered

Did you know the man who helped shape how we think and write about cheese lived in Italy — in the 15th century? This post is the last in a series about Pantaleone da Confienza.

 Pantaleone da Confienza was the first cheese travel writer who showed the world how wonderful cheese could really be. Through his in-depth study of cheeses all over Europe, he revolutionized how we think and talk about cheese. His writings not only impacted Medieval thinking and writing — we are still using his model today.

Because of his medical background, Pantaleone incorporated many medical and health anecdotes to counteract the thought that cheese was unhealthy. In Medieval times, medical professionals believed the body was controlled by four humors. To maintain health, one needed to balance those humors and one way was with food. Pantaleone mentions several cheeses that were good for balancing differing ailments. Cheeses that were mild and buttery were good to balance out overly active youths while the elderly should enjoy a stronger cheese to fortify them. Mild cheeses were good to sooth a fiery temperament while a mild mannered person could gain gumption with a potent cheese. He also believed that cheese could be good for one’s teeth (and he was right!). He thought that the gummy nature of some cheeses could pull the grime off teeth and clean them. While some of these thoughts may not jive with modern medical practices, it did answer the misconception about cheese during the time.

Similarly, Pantaleone tried to help is readers out by noting the prices of many of the cheeses. On a budget? He had a recommendation for that! Cheeses from Piedmont have “a spicy flavor, so much so that it is said that they are useful to the poor; firstly, because of their hot flavor, they eat very little of it. Second, it is said to be useful to the poor because in the dishes prepared by them, thanks to the sharp taste of the cheeses, there is no need for spices or salt.” You can keep that in mind while making your grocery budget for the week.

After traveling all over Europe, it was no wonder that Pantaleone had picked out his favorite cheeses. Although he may have been a little biased, he still believed that the best cheeses came from Italy. Chief among the Italian cheeses, in his opinion, was a cheese from Piacenza Parma, which is similar to a modern Parmigiano Reggiano. He also believed many of the soft cheeses that were produced in the British Isles were superb as well. Of all his travels, he liked cheeses from Germany least, and did not stay long on that area to discover more. Cheese makers in Aosta still quote Pantaleone’s accolades and analysis of their cheese to this day.

Modern cheese lovers and foodies are still benefiting from Pantaleone because he was one of the first to incorporate taste into his analysis. Before his work, technique and ingredients were the only thing that was mentioned in recipes. Because he traveled far and wide, he was able to create the foundation for the taste test and share his insights. He also was the one of first to recognize that many other factors go into what people assume to be a good food. Politics, sociology, the economy and culture all influence how people think of a food; he was one of the first scholars to incorporate all these fields into one consolidated work. Thanks Pantaleone!

Freedman, Paul. 2007. Food, The History of Taste. University of California Press.
Sitwell, William. 2013. A History of Food in 100 Recipes. Little, Brown and Company. 
Photo Credit to: Gusto Raro

Virginia Hyde

Virginia Hyde is a southern girl at heart who just moved to Boston to submerge herself in food - mainly cheese, to be honest. Game for any food-related adventure, festival, or gathering, she is ready to share her passion for cheese with others. Virginia is currently working on a Masters in Gastronomy at Boston University.