Wednesday, July 15, 2009


When is a cheese not a cheese? I became puzzled during my research for Menus From History when I came across fromage on several otherwise scrupulously observant bills of fare for dinners taken during Lent. Scrupulously observant Christians of the past were expected to abstain from all animal products the forty days of Lent – and at many periods there were secular penalties too, for breaking the rules.

Historically the word cheese could also mean something compressed or moulded or shaped like a cheese. In the words of John Pinkerton, the author of Recollections of Paris, in the Years 1802-5, “… fromage at Paris is a lax term for any substance compressed. Thus a fromage d’Italie is a Bologna sausage and a fromage glacé is a kind of ice.”

I don’t know of any other references to Bologna sausage that describe it in this way, and suspect it was not universal. Even in Pinkerton’s time I would suspect that most travellers who ordered fromage d’Italie would have expected a nice slice of Gorgonzola or something, not a slice of sausage.

The best known form of non-cheese cheese today is probably that made from fruit pulp – such as the quince paste we eat with real cheese, or the damson cheese we met in a previous post – a form that would certainly have been allowed during Lent.  A form highly unlikely to be found on a modern menu is head cheese – otherwise known as brawn (or souse, or collared head). The name seems to be American in origin, and seems to have appeared sometime in the nineteenth century. The explanation is obvious, of course, the cheese being made from the head and other relatively scrappy sources of meat.

Occasionally on a modern menu we might find a bavarois or bavaroise – a sort of custard or flavoured cream set with gelatin. It was once more commonly called Bavarian Cream or Bavarian Cheese, or even Bavarian Cream Cheese.

I give you two interesting variations on this theme. The first is for a fromage glacé (iced cheese) which, interestingly, the author indicates is English in style, presumably because of the well-known love of the nineteenth century English for iced and moulded puddings. The second is from the seventeenth century and would make a fine accompaniment to a dessert of fresh fruit.

Fromages Aux Epingles ou à’l Anglaise.
This fromage is called épingle, because the cream only receives the first icing; it is put quite liquid into the mould, and is neither to be stirred or worked; thus it will form in threads of ice; these are called épingles. All sorts of creams, &c., can be served thus when not boiled, for if boiled they will not answer
Manner Of Preparing It:
Make a cream with any fruit you like; when well mixed put into a mould à fromage, and put this mould in ice well pounded, and mixed with salt or saltpetre; let it remain three or four hours without stirring or working, only taking care it is well surrounded with ice, then serve. There will be threads of ice on the cream called epingles
French confectionary adapted for English families, by Frances Crawford (1853)

[épingle translates, according to Google, as pin]

Take Almonds beaten fine, make a Sack-Posset made only with Sack and Cream, take off the Curd and mingle it with the beaten Almonds, set it on a Chafing-dish of Coals and put some double refined Sugar to it with a sufficient quantity of Rose-Water, then in a Pye-Plate fashion it into the form of a Cheese; put it into a Dish, and scrape a little Sugar over it, and when it is cold, serve it up.
From William Salmon’s Household Companion (1695)

Quotation for the Day …

Cheese when given with a sparing hand is wholesome.
Aphorism from the Regimen Sanitatis Salernitanum (the School of Health at Salerno, about 12th or 13th century)



EB said...

I've never heard of this! Wouldn't the sausage cause as much of an issue during lent as the actual fromage?

charries said...

Head Cheese is a term still current in southern Ontario at markets and in stores.

Anonymous said...

Janet, I know what the internet says, but when I was a kid someone ask the older relatives how to make head cheese. They were asked if they wanted head cheese or souse. One has corn meal and different spices. When they got to discussing merits of boil the hogs head with or without the eyes, I left. Judy

The Old Foodie said...

Hello EB - I think the fromage in the Lenten menus was probably the fruit-type.
Judy - this is an example of words being used in different or overlapping senses in different areas. Certainly in some parts of England, souse is the same - or very similar - to brawn. I am intrigued that in your part of the world they are distinct dishes. Certainly corn (as in maize, not English 'corn' which used to be the generic word for grain, but the usual word for wheat) would not have been used in old English recipes for the obvious reason that it is a New World food. Do you have any recipes for the head cheese and souse, to show the different ingredients? I would be very interested.

Anonymous said...

No Janet, sadly I don't. Nothing was written down. Which makes me realize I have a few family recipes floating around in my head that I should write down. Next family get-together I'll talk to the older folks and see what I come up with. Judy

The Old Foodie said...

Judy - a few years ago my sister and I 'collected' all the family favourite recipes and made them up into a book (using one of those spiral binder things) - with a photo of each person next to their recipe. We did it for Christmas, and gave everyone a copy - it was a great success.

South Bay Ladies' Tea Guild said...

Then, of course, there is lemon cheese, which looks like it is very similar, and in some cases identical, in composition to modern recipes for lemon curd!