Any cheese that is not intended to be eaten very fresh (eg ricotta), is, therefore, by startlingly obvious definition, matured for some time before it is considered ready for consumption. We all have a general idea of what is meant by ‘mature’ cheese, don’t we? What then, is ‘ancient’ cheese – references to which do pop up from time to time?
There are two possible interpretations: either it means a particular variety which has been made since ancient times – such as Italian Taleggio or English Cheddar, for example. Alternatively, it may mean a particularly aged specimen.
An example of both may be the cheese called Saanen- a Swiss cows’ milk cheese made in the valley of the same name. It is usually aged for 3 to 7 years, and has exceptional keeping qualities. A custom is described of making a cheese to celebrate the birth of a child –that cheese then being kept and sampled on special occasions, and becoming part of that person’s bequest. It is said that the cheese can remain edible for 100 years, with some anecdotes describing 200 year old samples owned by some families.
On an entirely different tack altogether is a massive lump of cheese (or possibly butter) unearthed in 1987 in a peat bog in Tipperary, in Ireland. It is believed to be at least 1,000 years old, weighs about 50 kilos, and was enclosed in a wrapper made from an animal paunch. Peat provides a marvellous preserving environment (remember the long-dead Peat-Bog Human bodies?), and was regularly used by the ancient Irish for storing their butter for long periods. This ancient cheese was apparently sampled by several brave souls, who declared it edible, but who apparently did not enthuse about its taste. The story reminds me of the even braver souls who ate the 30,000 year old frozen bison in Alaska some years ago.
Today’s recipe provides a solution to a form of ancient cheese with which we are all familiar – the type found in the depths of the refrigerator during an overdue clean-out. It is from Cookery for Working-Men’s Wives (originally published in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1890)
Rice and Cheese with Green Peas.
One pound rice, 1 ½ d; three fourths pound dry green peas, 1 ½ d.; one fourth pound cheese, 1 ½ d.; vinegar, sugar, pepper, and salt, ½ d.; milk, ½ d.; total 5 ½ d.
Wash the rice and put it on to boil in 2 quarts water, with a teaspoonful of salt. When soft and all the water taken up, stir in the milk with more salt, if required, and pepper to taste. Grate the cheese (old cheese is best), mix it in, but keep a tablespoonful to put on top of the pie dish. Put tablespoonful of cheese on the top, and let it brown in the oven or before the fire. Get the common dry green peas, soak them for sixteen hours with a bit of soda the size of a bean in the water. Then boil in salt and water. When soft, drain, and add 2 tablespoonfuls of vinegar, 1 teaspoonful of sugar, pepper andsalt to taste; shake in the saucepan well. Serve hot.
[there is a recipe for Ramakins, suitable for old cheese, HERE]
Quotation for the Day.
A cheese may disappoint. It may be dull, it may be naive, it may be oversophisticated. Yet it remains cheese, milk's leap toward immortality.
Do you know about Gammelost? Norwegian for Old Cheese. According to Wikipedia it's actually only aged for 4 - 5 weeks, but it looks and tastes truly ancient. I could only manage to eat a very thin slice with lots and lots of butter. There's a picture at the bottom of this page: http://www.melnes.com/osteguide.htm
I had to laugh at first and thought, "there's probably some ancient cheese at the back of my refrigerator." But, I do love the thought of food traditions that have continued for thousands of years.
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