Monday, 13 October 2008

De Factoid the Tenth: “Blessed are the cheese-makers”


The title of this De Factoid comes from a line cribbed from Monty Python’s 1979 film comedy The Life of Brian (the result of the back-reaches of a crowd gathered to listen to Christ’s teachings mishearing “Blessed are the peacemakers...” – found in The New Testament, Book of Mathew, Chapter 5: Verse 9) and is, in some respects, quite true. Many of the methods of cheese production that formed the first batches of what are now viewed as ‘English’ cheeses were brought over by Norman (i.e. North French) monks, after the defeat of the English Saxon King Harold II (via, as legend would have us believe, a stray arrow to the eye) by William ‘the Conqueror’ of Normandy (or rather, more accurately, one of his many archers). But one somewhat jumps the gun – cheese was well matured before it reached our little island...

Cheese has been with us for a long time – the process probably developed alongside the domestication of milk giving animals at the end of the Stone-Age (otherwise known as the Neolithic period: from Greek, neos, ‘new’ and lithos, ‘stone’) beginning about 10,000 B.C. in the Middle-East, where animal skins and internal organs were often used as storage containers for liquids on desert trips. A proposed Proto-Indo-European root (see De Factoid the Ninth) for the word ‘cheese’, *kwat- is related to the process of ‘souring’ and suggests that the dairy product, like many of life’s culinary wonders, was probably an accident (for further acts of serendipity see De Factoid the Seventh on Port and Champagne). The process of cheese making could occur naturally if the rennet (made of little enzymes – biological factories – called rennin) in the stomach lining of an animal/drinking-flask were to come into contact with milk. Hot climate and the steady churning movement of a walking camel would probably also help the process a fair bit. It’s not ‘water to wine’, but back then ‘milk to cheese’ could well be viewed as an Act of God...

That said, the English cheese-tradition doesn’t come direct from the deserts of the Middle-East. The language we use to describe it is closer to home, and can be traced back to two differing – though occasionally linguistically-converging – European traditions.

The first, which might reasonably be called the ‘native’ method, lives on in products like ‘cottage cheese’ (the ‘cottage’ element of the name suggests the small-scale, homely origins of this type of cheese production): a mixture of lumpy curds (solidified/ soured pieces of milk – hence curdle – of unknown origin though plausibly linked to Gaelic/ Middle-Irish, gruth) and whey (the watery part of milk remaining after the curd has formed). Whey as a word comes from Old English, hwæg (the ‘g’ is pronounced like a ‘y’) and is related to other Germanic words like hui in Dutch and Middle-Low German huy / hoie. Churn is another Old English word – cyrin – meaning ‘butter-making machine’: hence ‘to churn up’. The point of relation between the Germanic whey and Celtic curd alerts one to the other social group to whom we owe our (or rather to whom the Continent owes its) cheese making tradition. The group who once ruled over both the Celtic Britons and the Germanic Europeans: the Romans.

Cheese, as a word, is the name for the product made by pressing curds together and originates somewhere in the swap-shop of language exchange between the tribes of northern Europe and their Roman rulers. The vast Germanic language groups and Rome both seemed to possess their own word(s) for cheese, which combined to create the word we have today. Latin, cāseus (which itself may ultimately have come across from the Middle-East in the Sanskrit word, kãsi) gave the world the words for cheese in several languages: Spanish, queso, Portuguese, queijo, Romanian caş and Welsh caws as the language of Roman soldiers was taken up and altered in the mouths and on the tongues of the native peoples of each Rome-ruled country. An earlier borrowing from Latin is thought to have produced the word *kasjus – a shared root for many of the northern-European (Germanic) languages – and is related to words like Old English/ Anglo-Saxon, ćēse; Old High-German, chāsi; Old Saxon, kāsi / k(i)ēsi and Modern German, käse. The English word cheese developed out of the northern Europeans’ take on this Roman word. The early Latin borrowing is related to Latin jūs (from where we get the word juice) and refers to the watery curds-and-whey cheese already discussed. Solid cheese had a different Latin name – formāticus i.e. ‘cheese made into a form’ (from the bowls – forma – in which the whey was pressed out) and replaced the word cāseus (and we can also assume it replaced the runny cheese type) in the Gallo-Roman region of the Empire (now more readily recognised as France), developing into the tradition the monks brought over to England after 1066. One still sees the remains of the word formāticus in French as fromage.

Not just created to provide the French with a different word to the majority of other Europeans, the Roman formāticus was developed (like black-pudding: see De Factoid the Third) so as to be easily transportable for the soldier on the go. Should they need to ‘cheese it’ from a hoard of enemies they’d be crackers to try and do it with a load of runny cheese. The phrase ‘cheese it’ i.e. ‘run away’ is thought to have developed as school-yard slang – probably as a more vigorous version of ‘beat it’ (i.e. ‘beat it so fast it turns to cheese [were ‘it’ a liquid]’). This may well be considered a cheesy joke. That phrase is related to the idea of a broad, forced smile (think: ‘cheesy grin’) from the photographers’ call: “say ‘cheese’!”. The word forces a closed mouth position with teeth showing (try saying it) – which is good for a picture. Though somewhat fallen out of common usage, ‘cheese it’ has gained some currency recently on the cartoon programme Futurama as one of Bender the Robot’s catch phrases.

Crackers, is an interesting word and carries with it several different meanings. The sense I used above – ‘they’d be crackers’, meaning ‘insane’ – is an alteration of an earlier phrase, brain-cracked (English language users still talk of ‘cracking under pressure’) and refers ultimately to the noise of something breaking, from Old English cracian, meaning ‘sound’. Other noises – particularly that of laughter – are related to the word: as is evident to anyone cracking-up after someone cracks a particularly cracking joke. Something fun being referred to as ‘good crack/ craic’ (the latter if you are in Ireland) also comes to mind. A cracker on which one might put cheese gets its name from the breaking noise, and crackling (the salted, cooked back-fat from a piece of pork – called ‘pork scratching’ in British pubs) again has sound in its name (that of it cooking). The American slang name for the drug crack cocaine (cocaine processed with ammonia or sodium bicarbonate i.e. ‘baking soda’) may well combine several of the above meanings: the crackling sound of the bicarbonate during heating (which removes the hydrochloride allowing the product to be smoked) and the ‘enjoyable’ experience (‘good craic’) combing with the drug’s other ‘street’ name, rock. High-flying ideas cooked-up during smoking such substances were referred to as crack-pipe dreams during early usage, which gave English the phrase ‘pipe-dream’ after a little clipping. The other pejorative (i.e. ‘derogatory’, ‘offensive’, ‘insulting’ from late Latin pējōrāre, ‘make worse’: hence French, pējor, ‘worse’) use of the word cracker comes from black communities in America in reference to racist white Americans. This most likely comes from a shortening of ‘whip-cracker’ in reference to the slave trade (though has older roots elsewhere in English) and has found currency, like ‘cheese it’, in American cartoons: this time in the frustrated words of South Park character, Chef. Chef, as a word, means (and is the origin of the word) ‘chief’ (a shortening of the French phrase chef de cuisine: ‘head of kitchen’). The English word – cook – comes from the Old English cōc, ‘preparer of food by boiling’ (pronounced with a long ‘oo’ sound, children!) – hence ‘cooking’ – and is related to the Latin word, coquus. French coqeure, (meaning ‘cook’) comes from here, as do the English words concoction and concoct (from Latin concoquere, ‘digest’, later ‘consider’, ‘reflect upon’ – see De Factoid the First): hence to ‘cook up a plan’. From coquus English is also granted its equivalent of the word for the edible ‘cracker’ – through Medieval Latin biscottus (meaning ‘twice cooked’: hence Italian biscotti bis, ‘twice’: think bisect, ‘cut in two’; the number of wheels on a bicycle or lenses in binoculars): the word is biscuit. Equally good with cheese, and not nearly as racist.

De Factoid the Eleventh: coming soon...

14 comments:

Argentum Vulgaris said...

What can one say, that I haven't already. I'd be crackers to try. Another good one Adam.


AV
http://netherregionoftheearthii.blogspot.com/
http://tomusarcanum.blogspot.com/

Adam James Nall said...

Thanks, AV. Glad you like it.

Best,

AJN

Zoe said...

I loooooove Life of Brian!!!
Lovely blog
Cheers

Adam James Nall said...

Thank you, Zoe. I rather like the film myself, and it made for a pleasing title.

Best,

AJN

Small Footprints said...

Wow ... that's more about cheese and crackers than I've ever read in one place. You have a great writing style ... love how your subject travels. Reminds me of "6 degrees of Kevin Bacon". Actually ... I'll bet that cheese and crackers can somehow be linked to Kevin. :)

Take Care!
Small Footprints
http://reducefootprints.blogspot.com

Adam James Nall said...

Thank you very much, Small Footprints. I'm glad you enjoyed the writing style / content. Thanks also for subscribing. Do have a read of some of the others if keen as they similarly rove about their respective subject matters!

Yes I do rather imagine Bacon would easily connect to cheese (or so the theory says at least!) - I'll leave it up to some of the readers to ponder that one.

Best,

AJN

kkii said...

I'm trying to work out a chicken potpie that has huge scallops instead of chicken, cheese sauce instead of the gravy, and a good biscuit crust overall. But in America we have sometimes to choose between cheese ($3.00 a small brick) and a gallon of gas for the tank! And the scallops! Great cheese read! http://ldgptl.blogspot.com/ I have a humor column and there are recipes coming. Come in and leave a comment?

kkii said...

Now do a piece on how the ancient invasion of Acadia, Canada (as told of in Longfellow's Evangeline)led to the real-life expatriates moving to the Deep South, USA and inventing (no kidding) Cajun cuisine. The choudiere' pot to Emeril-oriented BAMs! Go to it!

kkii said...

There! I just now did a thing on Evangeline, but I left the food and most of the semantics out.

Adam James Nall said...

Very interesting Kkii, thank you for your (multiple) contribution(s). I will bring the Cajun element up if it crosses over relevant subject matter (poss. something to do with the spread of French in the colonies).

I've been across to your blog and left a comment on your article.

Yours,

AJN

underOvr said...

Thanks my friend for stopping by...I shall be stopping by your place, getting the 411 on "De Factoids"

http://underOvr.blogspot.com

Adam James Nall said...

My pleasure, underOvr. Thank you as well.

Best,

AJN

MilesPerHour said...

Well, that's more about cheese than I have ever heard in my first 34 years of living in Wisconsin. Maybe something has changed since I left there 14 years ago.

Wisconsin is actually "The Dairy State". They export as much milk out of state for others to make cheese as they keep to make their own. People believe Wisconsin is all about cheese because of the Green Bay Packer fans that wear fake cheese triangle-hats on their heads during games.

So there a re a couple more cheese facts for ya!

Adam James Nall said...

Thank you very much for the facts from the Dairy State. The cheese picture in the article is a photoshop modified version of one of those cheese hats.

Thanks for reading,

AJN