Thursday, November 04, 2010


I came across a rather odd definition in the venerable Oxford English Dictionary recently, and I am hoping, once again, for your valuable insights. I was browsing the meaning of cheese, when I came across this tiny entry:

cheese-water, a water distilled from cheese.’

The sole reference to the phrase offered by the OED comes from The Boocke of Physicke, a medical text published in 1599, by ‘Oswaldus Gabelhouer. The short extract says ‘Wash yourselfe with the cheese-water mixed with the Camphir [camphor].’

‘Distilled’ immediately suggested a potent alcoholic drink to me, not a medicinal remedy for external use. I became suddenly excited . Is there (or was there ever) a cheese-brandy in the world? A beverage so secret that it has only ever been mentioned once in print?

I was so excited by the prospect of a nip of Parmesan Ratafia or a shot of Camembert Vodka that, clearly, I forgot my elementary physics. To distil, of course, means simply ‘to vaporize a substance by means of heat, and then condense the vapour by exposing it to cold, so as to obtain the substance or one of its constituents in a state of concentration or purity.’ Distillation therefore is a process that can be performed on any liquid, but not of course, to cheese. Equally clearly then, the early copy-editors of the illustrious OED also missed the error. For this they can be forgiven, however, as there does not appear to have been any more reported sightings of the phrase ‘cheese-water’ to cause them to refine the definition.

I went to the full text of the Boocke of Physicke, hoping for greater understanding of cheese-water. Here is the full recipe for the remedy:

For all manner of itchynge of the body whatsoever.
Take Lillywater, Rosewater, and water of Mayflowers, ana a like, distil also Goates cheese, and reserve that water apart, adde thereto a little contundede Camphir. First inugate the itch with good Aqua vitae, then madefye a sponge in the first foure waters, and wash yourself therewith, and at the last wash yourself with the cheese-water mixed with the Camphir. Does this always after fomentatione, or in bathinge. Probatum.

So, it appears that cheese-water is in fact, whey, which is ‘the serum or watery part of milk which remains after the separation of the curd by coagulation, esp. in the manufacture of cheese’. Perhaps the explanation of the use of ‘distil’ in this recipe/formula is merely that it was an incorrect choice of words for a man of science.

Whey has been in and out of fashion as a health-drink for centuries. Samuel Pepys was fond of it as a tonic in the mid-seventeenth century, and I do believe that in some circles it is popular again. I don’t believe I have seen fresh whey for sale anywhere, however. The modern version seems to be as whey-powder to ‘boost up’ other foods, or parts of the body, or something – which is a highly unnatural ‘health industry’ interpretation of the super-sizing concept, if you ask me.

In previous times it was the whey itself that was ‘boosted up’ with the addition of alcohol, to make a ‘medicinal’ drink such as ‘wine-whey’, ‘sack-whey’, or ‘whey-posset’. A non-alcoholic version which sounds delightful was ‘whey-whig’, a ‘beverage made of whey flavoured with herbs [especially] mint, balm, and walnut leaves.’

An important point is that whey was never wasted. It could replace the water when cooking up the breakfast oats to make whey-porridge or whey-brose. It was commonly converted into pork by being fed to the pigs, which is why pork and cheese industries often developed side by side (think of Melton Mowbray pork pies and Stilton cheese, in Englands Midlands region.)

You can even make whey yourself in the comfort of your own home. Here is a version from the inimitable Hannah Glasse.

Orange [or lemon] Whey
Squeeze the juice of a lemon or orange into a quarter of a pint of milk, when the curd is hard, pour the whey clear off, and sweeten it to your palate. You may colour some with the juice of spinach, some with saffron, and some with cochineal, just as you fancy.
The Art of Cookery (1774), Hannah Glasse.

Quotation for the Day.

Think what a better world it would be if we all, the whole world, had cookies and milk about three o’clock every afternoon and then lay down on our blankets for a nap.
Robert Fulghum.


momkathy said...

I love that Fulghum essay and that particular part.

momkathy said...

Cookies and mild indeed! I love that essay by Fulghum.

Marcheline said...

I think it's fine in children's rhymes... but drink or eat it?


Sharlene T. said...

I wonder if there is not some bacteria (helpful) in the whey that works similarl to penicillin? Has there been anything written about that? Just curious... This is fascinating and now I have a driving need to make my own whey to try in other recipes... thank you, so much, for your research and sharing... come visit when you can...

The Old Foodie said...

Momkathy - I love ALL of Fulghum's essays - I dont think they will ever date.
Marcheline - I have no desire to drink plain whey, but the orange/lemon one sounds pretty good.
Sharlene - I dont know about the helpful bacteria, but certainly sometimes whey was left to ferment which I guess made a mildly alcoholic drink. you might like the sack-whey and whey-whig too - I must give some recipes for those too, sometime soon.