Medieval Cheese

Brief History of Cheese

Most authorities consider that cheese was first made in the Middle East. The earliest type was a form of sour milk which came into being when it was discovered that domesticated animals could be milked.

A legendary story has it that cheese was ‘discovered’ by an unknown Arab nomad. He is said to have filled a saddlebag with milk to sustain him on a journey across the desert by horse. After several hours riding he stopped to quench his thirst,

Cheese was known to the ancient Sumerians four thousand years before the birth of Christ. The ancient Greeks credited Aristaeus, a son of Apollo and Cyrene, with its discovery; it is mentioned in the Old Testament.
only to find that the milk had separated into a pale watery liquid and solid white lumps. Because the saddlebag, which was made from the stomach of a young animal, contained a coagulating enzyme known as rennin, the milk had been effectively separated into curds and whey by the combination of the rennin, the hot sun and the galloping motions of the horse. The nomad, unconcerned with technical details, found the whey drinkable and the curds edible.

Cheese was known to the ancient Sumerians four thousand years before the birth of Christ. The ancient Greeks credited Aristaeus, a son of Apollo and Cyrene, with its discovery; it is mentioned in the Old Testament.

In the Roman era cheese really came into its own. Cheesemaking was done with skill and knowledge and reached a high standard. By this time the ripening process had been developed and it was known that various treatments and conditions under storage resulted in different flavours and characteristics.

The larger Roman houses had a separate cheese kitchen, the caseale, and also special areas where cheese could be matured. In large towns home-made cheese could be taken to a special centre to be smoked. Cheese was served on the tables of the nobility and traveled to the far corners of the Roman Empire as a regular part of the rations of the legions.

During the Middle Ages, monks became innovators and developers and it is to them we owe many of the classic varieties of cheese marketed today. During the Renaissance period cheese suffered a drop in popularity, being considered unhealthy, but it regained favour by the nineteenth century, the period that saw the start of the move from farm to factory production.

* Widcome, Richard. The Cheese Book. Seacaucus: Chartwell Books, 1978.

The types of cheese that would have been found in the middle ages and are acceptable at a medieval reenactment are as follows:

Beaufort; Brie; Camembert; Cheddar (first recorded use is in 1500); Comté; Cottage; Emmenthal; Farmer’s (similar in both taste & texture to Medieval cheese); Glouscester (first recorded use is in 1697); Grana (first recorded use is in 1200), Gorgonzola (first recorded use is in 879); Gouda (first recorded use is in 1697); Gruyére; Maroilles; Mozzarella; Parmesan (first recorded use is in 1579); Port-Salut; Reblochon; Rewen/Rowen/Ruayn (Autumn cheese, made after the cattle had fed on the second growth. This was apparently a semi-soft cheese, but not as soft as a ripe modern Brie: one period recipe says to grate it. It appears to be the same cheese that in France today is called fromage de gaing. See: Tart de Bry); Ricotta (for Platina’s recipe for ricotta cheese, see: Recocta); Romano; Roquefort (first recorded use is in 1070); Spermyse (soft or cream cheese flavored with herbs); and Stilton.

5 thoughts on “Medieval Cheese

  1. I have been researching the lost cheeses of Suffolk and there is reference to Suffolk Bang which was a flet cheese (ie very skimmed) being used to repair buildings. This reference is from 1822 but as it is called Roman Cement, I suspect there was a long tradition of using it.

    “Roman Cement: To make mortar for outside plastering, or brick-work, or to line reservoirs, so as no water can penetrate it, mix together 84 lbs of drifted sand, twelve pounds of unslaked lime, and four pounds of the poorest cheese grated through an iron grater.

    “When well mixed, add enough hot water, not boiling, to make into a proper consistence for plastering, such a quantity of above as is wanted. It requires very good and quick working. One hod of this mortar will go a great way, as it is to be laid on in a thin smooth coat, without the least space being left uncovered. The wall or lath work should be first covered with common hair mortar well dried. Suffolk cheese will be found to make the best cement.”

    Out of interest I came to your site looking for references to cheeses of the Magna Carta period – so thank you for the work you have done here.

  2. Hello,

    I was looking for more information about cheese glue too. I found this document
    There should be enough information for start.
    In general the chesee glue is made from soft cheese, like mozzarella. You make the cheese into fine particles soaked in water and mix it with baking soda, or quick lime. After drying the glue is not weakend by dampness.
    Ii was used to glue furniture, or raw hide on a shield.

    Best regards
    nor heat.

  3. I am a re-enactor with the Historic Saltire Society … Calligraphy Guild Mistress …. which is a living history group of volunteers. I was given a book recently which mentions cheese glue and I wondered what cheese would have been used. The glue in question was called ‘lean cheese’ and was mixed with water, flour and yeast then baked. Have you heard of it? If so which cheese and how would the baked ‘loaf’ have been employed! With writing on skins with iron gall ink I think it would amuse the children in particular to hear of glue made from cheese even if I won’t be using it.
    Enjoyed your site by the way! Sincerely
    Dawn Burgoyne

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