History was my major in college and, when I read about cheeses, it is the history behind them that particularly fascinates me. For example, I love being able to imagine folks in the 9th century enjoying Fourme d’Ambert when I sample out that classic, French blue cheese to customers in the shop.
Some cheeses have changed quite a lot over time. Saint-Marcellin is a prime example. Originally this was a goats’ milk cheese wrapped in chestnut leaves. As the centuries passed, however, production shifted to favor cows’ milk and, today, the cheese is pretty much known as a cows’ milk cheese. As well, Saint-Marcellin is rarely leaf-wrapped these days; it is sold in small crocks (which, when no longer holding cheese, I like to use for all sorts of things from laundry quarters to paper clips!).
In terms of popularization, Saint-Marcellin has a great story. Purportedly, the dauphin of France (later Louis XI) was out hunting in the forests of Dauphiné. Accounts differ but the general gist of the story is that somehow he was separated from his hunting party and fell off his horse. To make matters worse, the next-in-line to the throne was then menaced by a hungry bear. Fortunately, local woodsmen came to his rescue! After rescuing their future sovereign, these men provided him with sustenance – bread and homemade cheese. That cheese, known to us as Saint-Marcellin, became one of the dauphin’s favorites. When he became king, Louis’ affinity for the cheese spread its popularity.
Speaking of French rulers, a lot of cheese lore surrounds Napoleon. The classic, washed-rind cheese Époisses is supposed to have been one of his favorites. When I read this, I wasn’t terribly surprised, to be honest. Somehow it seems fitting that a man who conquered most of Europe would like one of the stinkiest, meatiest cheeses out there! I had a customer come in with her daughter the other day and their purchase of the day: a single round of Époisses. As it transpired, the Époisses was for the daughter who was probably about 10-12 years of age. When I told them that the cheese was a favorite of Napoleon’s, the mom responded without hesitation that she wasn’t surprised – her daughter was a little dictator too!
The goats’ milk cheese, Valençay, also has a history entwined with the Emperor. According to legend, Napoleon was visiting with his foreign minister, Talleyrand, at Talleyrand’s estate, Chateau de Valençay. Some versions have Napoleon on his way back from campaigning in Egypt and others just date the visit to sometime after his loss to Nelson at the Battle of the Nile. Either way, this cheese, shaped like a pyramid, was served at dinner. Either in annoyance that he had been reminded of his Egyptian losses or simply in recognition of those losses, Napoleon is then said to have lopped off the top of the pyramid! Whether or not this is true (and the number of variations on the story do make me suspicious!), I still like imagining it every time I eat this cheese myself or share it with a customer.
In the United States, our cheesemaking traditions are not as longstanding as those in Europe. That said, I like Bayley Hazen Blue from Jasper Hill not only for its taste but because of its name. Jacob Bayley and Moses Hazen, both generals during the Revolutionary War, were largely responsible for the construction of the Bayley Hazen Military Road. This road extends from Newbury, Vermont towards Canada and was built in anticipation of fighting on the Canadian border. The invasion of Canada never materialized but the road subsequently proved instrumental to the settlement of Vermont. It brought settlers to surrounding areas and the folks at Jasper Hill in Greensboro, Vermont tip their hat to this footnote in history by naming a scrumptious blue cheese after it.
Not unsurprisingly, many of the most well-known cheeses are also the oldest. Presumably, these cheeses have stood the test of time for a reason – namely, they taste darned good! Gorgonzola is believed by some to be the first blue cheese in the world while Fontina d’Aosta dates back at least to the 1300s (but is believed to be much older). Meanwhile, the recipe for Parmigiano Reggiano dates back to the Roman Empire and the name-controlled version dates to the 14th century. Saint-Nectaire was introduced to Louis XIV by the Marechal de Sennectare while Ossau-Iraty Brebis can be dated to the 1st century B.C. in Toulouse. The classic blue, Roquefort, has been a favorite of a wide range of historical luminaries: Pliny the Elder, Rabelais, Casanova, Caesar, Charlemagne, Louis XV and several popes to boot.
When I studied Latin in school, my teacher would often begin class by saying “Let’s break bread with the dead.” He was referring figuratively to our study of the language but I have to confess that the phrase has come to have a more literal meaning for me now when I am eating cheese!