Monday 26 October 2015

Pecorino romano

Pecorino [L mmmmm, so good] is one of the famous Italian hard cheeses; the other being Parmigiano Reggiano aka Parmesan. Unlike Actimel, a modern hard-marketed "good-bacteria" confection, hard cheeses have a history and tradition going back at least as far as the ancient Romans. We have some idea about how the Romans made cheese back in the old days because Lucius Junius Columella (b Gades=Cadiz in the year 4 CE) wrote De Re Rustica The book about Roman agricultural practice. His advice was to use rennet from lamb Ovis aries or kid Capra hisrcus but he also acknowledged the use of vegetable rennet from the dried thistle Cirsium vulgare flowers. Varro [previously], the other go-to-guy for Roman food lore, reported the use of hare Lepus europaeus rennet. Regardless of the source of rennet, cheese-makers should use a weight equivalent to a single denarius or the size of an olive to every bucket of milk; not more: over-egging the pudding lets the enzyme work through all the protein and start action on the fats so you finish up with a rather rancid [butyric acid etc.] product. From Columella's descriptions, the methods for making cheese have remained essentially the same for 2000 years.

This ceramic fragment [R from the BBC] was found just outside the village of Stilton in 2006 by a local potter called Richard Landy. Hat-tip to Gdau's mother (and a person in her own right!). It was identified as a cheese press by the County Council Archaeologist Dr Philippa Walton and dated to the 3rdC CE, because it was recognisably similar to lots of other contemporaneous artifacts which have been called cheese presses since Victorian times. Cheese makers beg to differ. If it's a cheese press then you would expect to find a 'follower' for every press but, in the experience of one farmer-cheesemaker-archaeologist, such flat disks to serve as a lid for the press have never been found.  Others point out that the flared sides of the press would allow several to be stacked one on top / inside the other.  And WTF, the cheesies ask, is with the deep ridges in the base?  The holes are for draining the whey, of course, but no modern cheese has these [decorative? homage to the Earth-mother?] concentric groove-and-ridge arrangements. The consensus seems to be that cheese "press" is wrong-wrong-almost-right: cheese drainers is more likely.  The likelihood of these artifacts being connected with some sort of dairy process was underlined by a 2012 study from Bristol U [and Gdansk and Princeton]: Mélanie Salque and her boss Richard Evershed ran a much older pierced pot-sherd through their gas chromatograph and discovered a cornucopia of fats, alkanes, di- and tri-acylglycerols, ketones and alcohols. Just what you'd expect if you allowed milk to deteriorate for 7000 years. When we make Christmas cake in January it allows for 11 months of tipping an occasional  shot of whiskey over the top to improve the flavour.  Maybe the grooves in Roman cheese served as gutters to allow a similar dosing-for-incorporation with brine, or lead acetate, or whatever-you're-having-yourself.

If you haven't got a potter in the neighborhood to make you a roman cheese press, you can still give your cheese a damned good squeezing using a 'stilton knot', whereby three corners of a square cheese-cloth are gathered together and tied with the fourth.  The knot can be incrementally forced against the cheese mass as it loses moisture, so that you finish up with a neat round of cheese with a distinctive belly-button on the top.

The Blob had a slice about Roman bread from Pompeii a couple of months ago. I can see I'll have to follow this up with a more complete investigation of Roman diet including their notorious fish-sauce and the details of peeling grapes.

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