Obsession: Leslie Lockett and the History of Cheesemaking

December 4, 2017
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For this series, we reach out to a member of the department who has a very particular obsession and ask them to share it with the world. In this edition, Associate Professor Leslie Lockett shares her fascination with the history of cheesemaking.

South Bend, Indiana, is not the most exciting place on the planet to spend six years in graduate school, but the town does boast a year-round farmers’ market. Through the winter—a very long winter, heaped with lake-effect snow—folk musicians entertain market-goers under the glow of heat lamps, and the diner dishes up obscenely large pancakes and omelets, and a mesmerizing machine fries one tiny doughnut after another.

When the selection of fruits and vegetables thins out in the winter, the most colorful and varied produce of the whole market is found at the cheese booths. In my memory, it is the South Bend farmers’ market and its vast selection of local cheeses that first fueled my curiosity about cheese: how could it have so many personalities and flavors and colors when it is made almost entirely of milk, a raw material that epitomizes pale, bland uniformity?

Some might find that the answer to this question makes cheese less appetizing. Much of the credit for the wide variety of flavors and textures in cheese belongs to the bacteria and fungi that grow in and on the cheese as it matures. Each cheese is essentially a tiny, fertile farm for cultivating bacteria and fungi, which feed on the cheese and generate flavorful molecules as metabolic by-products. Yummy, right?

Anyone who wants to wade through the scientific literature on the biochemistry of cheese can find out everything she wants to know about how present-day cheesemakers calibrate and manipulate the growth of microorganisms in cheese as it coagulates and matures. I started reading more widely in this field as I moved from graduate school to my current job at Ohio State, where the library system is amply stocked with dairy science publications. But I am, by training, a specialist in medieval literature, and soon I was digging into texts in Latin and Old English in search of the cheeses of antiquity and the Middle Ages. How and why were cheeses made? What was their cultural significance? And what did they taste like?

Medieval textual and archaeological evidence offers complicated but abundant answers to the first two questions. In the era before pasteurization and refrigeration, milk spoiled quickly; any community that raised livestock needed a technology to stabilize the milk they harvested if they didn’t want all that nutriment to go to waste. Converting milk solids into cheese or butter was the most widespread technology for giving milk solids a long shelf life. And in late antiquity and the early medieval period, virtually everyone knew how to make cheese; it was not a specialized craft but one that took place in every household that harvested milk. Late-antique theologians, including Augustine, Cassiodorus and Gregory the Great, wrote about cheese with enough detail to suggest that they possessed first-hand experiential knowledge of the cheesemaking process.

In late-antique and early medieval texts, the cultural valence of cheese is brimming with contradictions. For the Church Fathers, the mysterious chemical process of curdling—the separation of liquid whey from solid cheese curds—is analogous to God’s ineffable interventions in the material world, especially his implantation of souls in human embryos. However, medieval authors also portray cheese as a threat to healthy digestion, a cause of nightmares and a vehicle for delivering a dose of poison. Sometimes, cheese symbolizes divine and seasonal abundance; in other contexts, cheese is the food of penitence, monastic asceticism and the Lenten fast. The humbleness of cheese is glorified in florid Latin poetry by the fourth-century Spanish poet Prudentius, but it is scorned by a rebellious nun in a Latin poem from eleventh-century France: in her monastery, flirtations are scarce, her clothes are coarse and smelly and she is sick and tired of eating cheese.

But while textual evidence can tell us about people’s taste for cheese (that is, their cultural attitudes toward its consumption), they offer little insight into the taste of cheese (that is, the flavors perceived when the taste buds encounter flavorful molecules in the cheese). This is why my recent research has turned toward the biochemistry of cheese and the fast-growing field of experimental archaeology, in hopes of understanding whether and how medieval cheesemakers, who did not know that bacteria existed, nonetheless developed technologies for micromanaging the growth of bacteria in milk and in cheese curds, in the optimal amounts to produce cheeses that would be both stable and delicious as they aged. Last summer, I visited the Centre for Experimental Archaeology at University College, Dublin, to initiate a collaboration with Nikolah Gilligan, a former professional archaeologist who is now pursuing a PhD focused on early medieval foodways; we made cheese in clay pots over an open fire, inside a roundhouse woven of hazel branches, a replica of a seventh-century roundhouse uncovered by archaeologists. My hope is that this was only a first step in the process of assembling a team of collaborators with whom I can explore the flavors of premodern cheeses from a biochemical and experimental angle.

By Leslie Lockett

Stay tuned for the next Obsession story for which Lockett has tagged Karen Bruce!