Cheese has been around for thousands of years; evidence of cheesemaking has been found on Egyptian tomb murals over 4,000 years old. Forward Magazine reminds us that the Bible even mentions cheese, such as in 1 Samuel, when the future King David’s father, Jesse, sends his sons 10 cheeses to sustain them in their fight against the Philistine Goliath. Matthew Goodman, author of the article, opines:
“It’s likely this cheese was made from goat’s or sheep’s milk and preserved either by salting or by immersion in olive oil, as is still done in the Middle East today.”
Cheese also plays a central role in The Book of Judith, a work dating from biblical times found in the Apocrypha rather than the Bible proper. [The Apocrypha are a set of texts about which there were disagreements on biblical canonicity.] It’s a great story, relating that during the reign of King Nebuchadnezzar, Assyrian armies were laying siege to the small but militarily significant town of Bethulia, near Jerusalem. One of its residents, the beautiful widow Judith, was determined to save her townspeople. She managed to gain entrance to the enemy general’s tent and fed him salty cheeses. She then offered him multiple goblets of wine to slake his thirst. After he fell into a drunken sleep, she chopped off his head and carried it back to her comrades in a sack. When the Assyrian armies saw it, they fled. All in all, a successful wine and cheese party!
In any event, by the time of the Roman Empire, cheesemaking was a widespread industry. The Romans introduced cheesemaking to the Angles and Saxons. Even after the Romans left, the people who now live in what we call Great Britain continued to make cheese.
The International Dairy Foods Association writes that we have the monasteries to thank for much of the cheese. During the Middle Ages – from the decline of the Roman Empire until the discovery of America – cheese was made and improved by the monks in the monasteries of Europe. (As “The World on Cheese: Culture” magazine explains, cheese was an attractive protein since there were often religious prohibitions against eating meat or fish.)
The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Cheeses of the World by Ehlers and Hurt notes that in 1066, when William the Conquerer took over the throne of England, he brought with him Cistercian monks from Burgundy to teach the shepherds in the Yorkshire Dales how to make cheese from sheep’s milk.
The royal penchant for cheese continued unabated. In 1170, King Henry II purchased 10,240 pounds of cheddar, having declared it was the best cheese in England. (Ehlers and Hurt, p. 82)
According to the magazine “The World on Cheese: Culture”:
“Monastic cheeses are typically semi-soft cow’s milk cheeses with pungent and aromatic flavors. The rinds are washed with alcohol, a practice that developed naturally since many monasteries were also producing wine or beer.”
Types of cheeses originating from monasteries include most notably Münster, which takes it’s name from the Latin word monastarium, meaning “monastery.” Roquefort was also mentioned as early as 1070 in the records of the monastery at Conques, France. At the end of the sixteenth century, Époisses was created in the Cistercian Monastery of Époisses. [Époisses, pronounced eh-pwass, is a pungent (a.k.a. “stinky”) soft-paste cows-milk cheese. It is sold in a circular wooden box, and in restaurants, is sometimes served with a spoon due to its extremely soft texture.]
So how did cheese make it out of the monasteries and onto the farms? Alas, when Henry VIII abandoned Catholicism so he could keep beheading his wives and marrying new ones, he also shuttered the monasteries. The monks, having lost their homes and jobs, went to local farms for employment, where they could continue to make cheese, if not to make prayers.
[Modern day abbeys and monasteries continue to make cheeses and other products as a way to support their – well – habits.]
The cheese industry came to America along with settlers. A curator at the National Historic Cheesemaking Center in Monroe, Wisconsin writes:
“Cheese has been produced in America since early in the 17th century when English Puritan dairy farmers brought their knowledge of dairy farming and cheesemaking with them from the Old World to the New English colonies. After the introduction, the manufacture of cheese in America moved from east to west mostly in the northern part of the nation.”
The land in Wisconsin was originally used to grow wheat, barley, and hops. But by the end of the 19th century Wisconsin wheat farmers could not compete with the wheat grown in the plains of the west, and farmers realized that the land across southern Wisconsin was much better suited for raising cows. Cheesemakers started immigrating to Wisconsin and now, as the National Historic Cheesemaking Center notes:
“Wisconsin cheesemakers use 90% of [the milk supply in the state] to produce over 2.8 billion pounds of cheese at 126 plants.
Wisconsin has more skilled and licensed cheesemakers than any other state. In addition, Wisconsin is the only state to offer a cheesemaker the opportunity to become a Master Cheesemaker. Currently Wisconsin produces over 25% of all domestic cheese in the United States.”
The World Atlas entry on cheese production argues that California, with its large population of dairy cows, has begun to contest Wisconsin’s position, and is now close on its heels. Indeed, the last time we were in Sonoma, we were directed to a “Cheese Trail” in addition to the more familiar “Wine Trail.”
But, you may ask, what is the best cheese? Every year, The Guild of Fine Food (“promoting excellence in fine food & drink) hosts the World Cheese Awards. In 2018, as their website explains, “A record-breaking 3,500 cheeses from every corner of the globe lined up in the judging hall [in Norway] and were judged by an international panel of 230 experts from 29 nations.” A Gouda-style cheese made on a small farm in Norway was crowned the best cheese in the world. You can see a list of the top sixteen cheeses here. Alas, no U.S. cheeses in the bunch. But there is also The World Championship Cheese Contest and United States Championship Cheese Contest, held in alternating years in Wisconsin. Their website indicates there were more than 3400 entries in 2018 from 27 countries. In that battle, divided into classes of cheese, there were seven American cheesemakers in the top twenty finalists. Two of them came from Wisconsin. (And the top three prizes for Brie came not from France but from Wisconsin!) Those results are here.
You may also wonder, what are some of our favorite cheeses? We have two favorite brands, both award-winning cheeses from Wisconsin. One is Renard’s (Chris Renard earned the nationally acclaimed title of Master Cheesemaker) with recipes online here, and the other is Roth (their Grand Cru has won a number of World Cheese Awards) and they have some great-looking recipes online here.
What follows is my own recipe for cheese scones that I make far too often.
Easy Cheesy Scones
2 cups plus 2 tbs flour (only King Arthur’s will do! It makes a huge difference: rocks vs. light and airy pillows)
3/4 tsp. baking soda
3/4 tsp. cream of tartar
1/3 tsp. salt (I just use a heaping 1/4 tsp, being too flummoxed by the idea of 1/3 tsp.)
1 tsp. sugar
4 TBS. butter
17.5 ounce carton of non-fat unflavored Greek yogurt
Some Successful Cheese options (and feel free to add more, to taste):
1 6-8 oz. Roth Grand Cru, chopped up small or shredded
1 cup shredded Renard’s “Terrific Trio” (Cheddar, Gouda, and Parmesan)
1/2 cup shredded Trader Joe’s “Unexpected Cheddar” (contains Parmesan) and 1/2 cup shredded Gruyère
Note 1: Optimal cheeses to use will be slightly sweet and nutty but with enough “bite” to stand out among the other flavors of the scones.
Note 2: If you use Grand Cru, the results will resemble gougères more than scones, but what’s to complain about?
Preheat oven to 450.
Sift 2 cups flour with baking soda, cream of tartar, salt, and sugar in large mixing bowl. (I stir with a spoon. Seems to work just dandy. And I do this the night before.)
Cut in butter with pastry blender or knives until thoroughly blended. Stir in cheese, or if desired, also cut in cheese pieces with pastry blender tool. Stir in yogurt.
Note: Amounts of yogurt and flour can be tweaked; the dough should adhere together but not be too gloppy.
Turn onto floured board (I cover an area of the countertop with some wax paper and turn the dough onto it, for quick and easy cleanup afterwards.). Knead (with remaining flour if necessary) for less than a minute.
Roll to thickness you desire and cut into desired shapes. Put onto an ungreased baking sheet (pizza pan works just perfectly) and bake at 450 for 8-13 minutes. (Needless to say, you have to watch them. All ovens are different. Take them out when they are just barely brown on the top.) Serve warm.
Happy National Cheese Day!!