We Are What We Ate
Trading cheese has a long tradition
In her ‘Say Cheese’ piece in this issue, Nicole Senior reminds us of the pleasure of a good piece of cheese. It’s certainly a food that’s long had value and currency for consumers as the following extracts will show. First, here’s what Daniel Defoe wrote about cheese in his Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain.
‘All the lower part of this county [Wiltshire], and also of Gloucestershire, adjoining, is full of large feeding farms, which we call dairies, and the cheese they make, as it is excellent good of its kind, so being a different kind from the Cheshire, being soft and thin, is eaten newer than that from Cheshire. Of this, a vast quantity is every week sent up to London, where, though it is called Gloucestershire cheese, yet a great part of it is made in Wiltshire, and the greatest part of that which comes to London, the Gloucestershire cheese being more generally carried to Bristol, and Bath, where a very great quantity is consumed, as well by the inhabitants of two populous cities, as also for the shipping off to our West-India colonies, and other places. This Wiltshire cheese is carried to the river of Thames, which runs through part of the county, by land carriage, and so by barges to London.
Again, in the spring of the year, they make a vast quantity of that we call green cheese, which is a thin, and very soft cheese, resembling cream cheeses, only thicker, and very rich. These are brought to market new, and eaten so, and the quantity is so great, and this sort of cheese is so universally liked and accepted in London, that all the low, rich lands of this county, are little enough to supply the market; but then this holds only for the two first summer months of the year, May and June, or little more. Besides this, the farmers in Wiltshire, and the part of Gloucestershire adjoining, send a very great quantity of bacon up to London, which is esteemed as the best bacon in England, Hampshire only excepted: This bacon is raised in such quantities here, by reason of the great dairies, as above, the hogs being fed with the vast quantity of whey, and skim’d milk, which so many farmers have to spare, and which must, otherwise, be thrown away.’
Want to know more about this ‘green cheese’? Here’s what Andrew Dalby says in his very readable Cheese, A Global History from Reaktion Books’ deliciously digestible Edible series.
‘It was called green not from its colour but from its freshness, and this metaphor goes a long way back. In ancient Athens in the late fifth century BC, every month on the day of the new moon was held a fair called simply ho chloros tyros, “the Green Cheese”. We know this because of the advice reported in a lawsuit, that if one were looking for a man from Plataiai one would be sure to find him at this fair. Plataiai was a small hill town a few miles north of Athens: therefore we know that the economy of nominally independent Plataiai depended almost wholly on supplying fresh cheese to Athens. This is what big cities do to their neighbours. Ancient Rome liked its young Vestine cheese from the nearby Apennines: the best was from campus Caedicius, says Pliny. Nearly two thousand years later London and Bristol drew Wiltshire dairy farmers into producing green cheese to be dispatched in barges eastwards down the Thames and westwards down the Avon; and at the same moment Paris called on Viry, Vincennes and Montreuil for its fresh cream cheeses and on Neufchâtel and the Pays de Brie for fine cheese that required just a little longer to mature (ten days in the case of Neufchâtel).’