Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Cheese Rules.

‘Cheese Rules’- how did you read that? Cheese, does, without doubt, rule. There are also (or used to be) rules about the eating of cheese.

The fourteenth century book of manner for children, called The Babees Book advises to “have a clean trencher and knife for your cheese.”

A book of manners for children from the fifteenth century – The Lytlylle Childrens Lytil Boke advises not rushing at the cheese, with the words:

“And cheese come forthe, be not too greedy,
Ne cutte thow not thereof to hastely”

And also in the fifteenth century, the Latin poem Modus Cenandi (The Way of Dining) informs as to the polite way of taking cheese.

“Let old cheese be cut thin
And let fresh cheese be cut thick for those that eat it
Do not press the cheese & the butter on to your bread with the thumb.”

And getting closer to modern times, we have:

Another correspondent asks, “Should cheese be eaten with a fork?” We say, decidedly, “Yes,” although good authorities declare that it may be put on a morsel of bread with a knife, and thus conveyed to the mouth. Of course we refer to the soft cheeses, - like Gorgonzola, cream-cheese, Neufchatel, Limburger, and the like – which are hardly more manageable than butter. Of the hard cheeses, one may convey a morsel to the mouth with the thumb and forefinger; but, as a general rule, it is better to use the fork.”
[Manners and Social Usages (American), by Mrs John Sherwood, 1887]

Nowadays we make much ado about the pairing of food and wine, which some interpret as an opportunity to make rules (never red with fish, only white with chicken, sweet wines with dessert etc). There have always been some such folk:

It was formerly the custom to drink porter with cheese. One of the few real improvements introduced by the “Napoleon of the realms of fashion” was to banish this tavern liquor and substitute port. The dictum of Brummel was thus enunciated: “A gentleman never malts he ports
[The Laws of Etiquette; Or, Short Rules and Reflections for Conduct in Society, 1836]

Good manners rule – that’s my opinion. And good manners stand the test of time. Five or six hundred years later, it is still considered correct to cut oneself a piece of cheese – especially blue cheese - from the side of the wedge, preserving the general wedge-shape, and ensuring that everyone gets a share of the rind and the centre.

For the recipe for the day, I give you an egg and cheese dish from the late fourteenth century The Forme of Cury.

Brewet Of Ayrenn.

Take ayrenn [eggs], water and butter, and seeþ hem yfere with safroun [saffron] and gobettes of chese [cheese]. wryng ayrenn thurgh a straynour [strainer]. whan the water hath soden [boiled] awhile: take þenne the ayrenn and swyng [mix] hem with various [verjuice]. and cast þerto. set it ouere [over] the fire and lat it not boile. and serueit forth.

Quotation for the Day.

Ladies must decline cheeses, and, above all, ‘must not touch the decanters.’
National Encyclopedia of Business and Social Forms, 1882.


Unknown said...

Why must ladies decline cheeses? Does it have to do with the (supposed or actual) difficulty of digestion referred to above?

The Old Foodie said...

No, nothing to do with digestion. It was do do with ladies (especially Young Ladies)needing to appear to have delicate, refined appetites. To eat cheese at the end of dinner was vulgar in a Young Lady - not a good look if one was a Young Lady in the marriage market, and the mother of a potential suitor saw one behaving in a way that was not genteel, and signified one was greedy and badly brought up. It was still being mentioned in books of manners in the early 1900's!