3 Tales of Cheese: From Egyptian Mummies to Uruguayan Cannonballs
This episode I'll be taking a look at a few different stories about one of my favourite foods. It sometimes comes with holes, sometimes it smells like socks, but no matter what, it always tastes amazing. That’s right this is the cheese episode!
For thousands of years, since humans domesticated cows, sheep and goats we’ve been gathering milk from them and making cheese from it. In fact the production of cheese predates any of our recorded history and as far as we can tell was actually created by accident. The most likely explanation for how early humans accidentaly converted their fresh milk into cheese was due to their habit of transporting liquids in the bladders and stomachs of the animals they killed and ate. The enzyme that is used to make cheese is called Rennet and is naturally found in the stomachs of ruminant animals. Being that these organs were generally leak-proof, they became the perfect vessels in which to store and transport their milk. As the fresh milk sloshed about in its animal organ containers, the Rennet got to work on the cheesemaking process. It was this enzyme combined with the lack of refrigeration that curdled the milk just enough to produce the earliest forms of cheese.
After the curds were formed they were strained off and had salt added to them as another layer of protective preservation, but even so, most cheeses were made and eaten fresh each day. By the time the Roman empire rolled around, cheese making had become an in-demand trade and was considered somewhat of an art form by the general population. They began really pushing the boundaries of what was possible and produced a wide variety of cheese no-one had yet seen or tasted. Out of this came the famous Italian hard cheeses, parmesan and pecorino, which were perfect for the Roman legions to take into the field as they lasted so much longer than their soft cheese counterparts.
From here, cheesemaking spread into Northern Europe in the middle ages and because of the much cooler climates there, the need for salt lessened as a preserving agent. This meant they were able to create the creamier, milder cheeses we know and love, along with the acquired tastes of the ripened blue cheeses.
It wasn’t until 1815 that the mass production of cheese began. The first cheese factory was built in Switzerland because of this, helped to make an incredibly important discovery. One of the limiting factors of cheese production was the need for the stomach enzyme rennet, and there was only so much of that available. Shortly after the factory opened scientists discovered a way to mass-produce the rennet enzyme and this caused cheese production to spread like wildfire anywhere that dairy was being produced.
Along with this mass production came stricter safety standards. The advent of pasteurisation meant that soft cheeses became safer to eat, as historically they often carried the risk of infecting the eater with TB, salmonella or listeriosis.
So how was that for a brief history of cheese? Now, knowing all of that, and because its what I do on this show, we’re going to take a quick break and then dive into some of the more bizarre stories of cheese throughout history.
Our first story starts long before the cheesy innovations of the Roman empire, deep in the heart of ancient Egypt. In 2010 Archaeologists discovered an ancient tomb attributed to a high ranking official named Ptahmes who served under Pharoah Seti I as well as his son, Ramesses II. The tomb was dated to have been built as far back as the 13th century BC and in it, they found a number of broken clay jars.
The reason for the breakages was because this was not in fact the first time this tomb had been unearthed. It was first discovered in 1885 by a band of treasure hunters and looted over a number of years by local bandits as well as European excavators. Over time the drifting sands of the desert covered up the tomb again and its location was lost to history, having never been recorded by any of the thieves for fear of someone finding it and taking the treasures buried within. So it wasn’t until the accidental rediscovery of the tomb in 2010 that the archaeological world could properly investigate what lay within.
The original thieves and excavators were more interested in jewels, trinkets and the valuable hieroglyphic carvings on the temple pillars to take any notice of what was in the jars themselves. They smashed them as they went hoping to find treasure inside one of them, but all that kept falling out of them was a solid, lumpy mass covered in canvas fabric. The modern-day archaeologists were more intrigued however and sent them for analysis back in Italy. The lead scientist on the case was a man named Enrico Greco and after dissolving a sample of the mass and extracting the proteins inside of it, he realised what they had found. They were hunks of early Egyptian cheese, wrapped in canvas and hardened over time. They had been stored in earthenware jars and had been sitting untouched in that tomb for over 3000 years. Other excavations have often revealed the remains of early cheesemaking equipment, but never the end product itself, making this discovery by far the worlds oldest known example of cheese.
It was a good thing that none of the archaeologists decided to try a piece for themselves, however, as during the inspection of the cheese it was discovered to be carrying a deadly bacteria sometimes found in early forms of unpasteurised dairy products. The bacteria produces a particularly violent form of food poisoning in humans that, untreated will more often than not, lead to death. It’s similar to the pharaohs curse but in a more advisory sort of role.
We move across the Atlantic ocean now to a large white house in Washington DC. The year is 1829 and Andrew Jackson has just been elected as the 7th president of the United States of America. It seems that he had a fair few admirers, and possibly none more so than a prosperous dairy farmer from New York named Colonel Thomas Meacham.
Meacham decided that the best way to celebrate the new president, and in doing so show off the prosperity of his region, was to present Jackson with a two-ton wheel of cheese. It had taken the milk of 150 dairy cows having been milked for four days to create this behemoth of a dairy product. It was such a sight to behold that before sending it to the White House, it had it’s very own national tour that included New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore. Once it had done it’s requisite service to the public it was finally delivered to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue where Jackson kept it on display in the foyer for over a year. It continued to age in the musty air during the 8 years of Andrew Jacksons presidency. During the final farewell party that he threw as president in 1837 he brought the behemoth of a cheese up for everyone to see. He raised a glass and decreed that every man and women present should take their fill of the giant cheese before them. Upon first cutting into the cheese one onlooker had this to say: When the cheese was served "there arose an exceedingly strong smell, so strong as to overpower a number of dandies and lackadaisical ladies,"
I think it’s safe to say however that never before, and I am pressed to think of a time since, has any party produced such a great description of the cheese-eating frenzy that went on that night as this one:
Here’s how it was described:
"For hours did a crowd of men, women and boys hack at the cheese, many taking large hunks of it away with them. When they commenced, the cheese weighed one thousand four hundred pounds, and only a small piece was saved for the President’s use. The air was redolent with cheese, the carpet was slippery with a soft creamy layer spilt and trampled as they went, and nothing else was talked about in Washington for many days after. Even the scandal about the wife of the President’s Secretary of War was forgotten in the tumultuous jubilation of that great occasion."
It takes a lot to divert attention away from a good scandal in Washington, but if anything was going to do it, it was a two-ton wheel of cheese.
For our next story allow me to set the scene. The year is 1841 and we find ourselves off the coast of South America. Commodore Jonas H. Coe of the Uruguayan navy, sailing out of Montevideo, is in the thick of a particularly nasty naval battle with an Argentinian force sailing out of Buenos Aires, just across the Rio de la Plata.
The Argentine ships were lead by Admiral William Brown, which if you’re like me, doesn’t sound like a traditionally Argentinian name. Well you’d be right. William Brown was born in Ireland in 1777 and at the age of nine emigrated with his family to Philadelphia. After the tragic loss of his father to Yellow Fever and the disappearance of his mother, it was purely by chance that he ended up aboard his first vessel. One morning while wandering along the Delaware river, he was approached by a ship’s captain in search of a new cabin boy. Knowing that his prospects otherwise looked bleak, Brown decided this was probably going to be his best option for future employment and so joined up immediately.
From there he worked his way up the ranks and after an eventful time, having been press-ganged by the British in the midst of the Napoleonic wars, he sailed back across the seas to settle in Argentina. It was there that he started captaining his own ships and fought many sea battles for the Argentine navy. One of his officers at the time was a certain man named Jonas H. Coe. Coe would go on to switch allegiance, rising in the ranks of the Uruguayan navy and as we read earlier would be the man to sail out to meet Admiral Brown in the latest skirmish between these two rival nations.
This was the third of three encounters between the two former comrades, with Brown having soundly beaten Coe on the previous two occasions. This time Coe was smarter and didn’t immediately sail out to meet him, preferring to stay in the harbour at Montevideo under the protection of the shore mounted guns. Admiral Brown turned his ships as if to leave and Coe took this as a sign to engage, believing that the Argentines would be scattered in the confusion. It was however simply a ploy by Brown to lure Coe out of hiding. In his haste to chase the fleeing Argentines, Coe had only loaded aboard his ships the food for the crew, but hadn’t had time to finish loading all of the usually required ammunition. He wasn’t concerned however as he believed he had his rivals on the ropes and the battle would be won in a short time.
Commodore Coe’s vessel chased down the ship lead by Admiral Brown determined this time to not lose the third of their three encounters. Brown’s ship turned, catching Coe off guard. Coe immediately began ordering his men below decks to start firing the cannons. Volley after volley of cannon fire was sent from each ship, and each time they fired they were getting closer and closer with the chance for serious damage growing ever higher.
Cannonballs whizzed overhead, some striking Coes ship but thankfully for him, nothing crippling. Suddenly his ship’s cannons fell silent while the enemy continued with the assault. Coe was perplexed, why had his men stopped firing. He watched as Admiral Brown’s ship drew almost alongside his own, he could see the men in the riggings and the smiles on their faces at seeing Coes ship, for whatever reason, not putting up much of a fight. Just then one of his men burst up from below, a look of panic and exasperation on his face as he ran toward the Commodore. “We’re out of cannonballs” he shouted, looking around at the rest of the helpless crew. Coe didn’t panic though, he put his mind to coming up with a solution. They still had gunpowder just nothing to use it with. Then he had a brainwave. He had watched as the food was brought on board a few days before and he recalled the multiple large wheels of solid, hard cheese that had been stored below in the galley. He shouted to the man to pack the hard cheeses into the cannons and to fire those at the ship alongside.
The man turned and did as he was told but with a rather bemused look upon his face as he went. The cheese had once been of the Edam variety but it had not aged particularly well and the lieutenant even broke a carving knife trying to cut it.
When told of the plan, the men below decks did not have very high hopes of success for it. But as all good sailors do, they obeyed their captain and shoved the cheese into the cannons. The call to hold came out and the men lit their flames in anticipation. The order to fire was yelled out and cannons all along the side of the ship erupted at once, hurling the rock hard cheese across the narrow gap between the ships. What followed afterwards exceeded the expectations of even the most optimistic of the sailors.
One of the cheese balls struck the mainmast, cracking it and sending shards of hot, solid cheese shrapnel all across the deck. Several more tore holes through the ship’s sails, rendering their escape almost impossible. One somehow made its way through a porthole shattering once inside and killing two sailors. Brown was shocked by what he saw and immediately called for a retreat.
Coe had finally beaten him, but knew better than to follow admiral brown for the final crushing blow as he had by now, really exhausted all of their options for ammunition. Admiral Brown limped back to port, wondering, I’m sure, just how he was going to explain this to his superiors.