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The Importance of Cheese
Most of the important nutrients of milk go into the cheese, but without its failings. It is difficult for disease-producing bacteria to live in most cheeses; whilst milk, a first-class culture medium, has spread tuberculosis, scarlet fever, diphtheria, typhoid, dysentery, cholera and 'food poisoning'.
The stability of cheese is well known. Take for example a good-quality Cheddar cheese, which can be very palatable after more than a year in a proper store. On the other hand liquid milk is not very nice after only a few days, even if it has been put in a refrigerator.
Sour milk, which keeps better than fresh, cannot outlive the most short-lived kind of cheese.
So cheese is reknowned for its biological stability and high nutritional value; and its importance is consistent with its long, though mainly unwritten history.
18th Century Cheese Recipe
An eighteenth-century recipe - To make a New-market Cheese to cut at two Years old- gives some of the essentials of cheese-making:
... take twenty quarts of new Milk warm from the Cow and colour it with Marigolds, when is done ... get ready ... a quart of fair Water, which must be kept stirring over the fire till 'tis scalding hot, then stir it well into the Milk and Runnet, as you do other Cheese; when 'tis come, lay Cheese-cloaths over it, and settle it with your Hands; ... as the Whey rises, take it away ... then put it in the Press, and press gently an hour; take it out again, and cut it in thin slices, ... and break it with your Hands as small as you can, and mix with it a good handful of Salt ... then press ...
Just as when making a junket for the table, the milk is clotted with rennet, a preparation of enzymes from the calf's stomach. The hot water warms the milk to a temperature suitable for the rennet to act and perhaps gives the curd some plasticity. Newmarket cheese may have been something between a Cheddar and the Dutch cheeses which can be bought today; only it would become pretty hard if kept for two years.
Rennet is not used for ordinary sour-milk cheese made at home: the protein is coagulated by acid produced by bacteria from the milk-sugar. This is so, too, for 'Gervais' and other commercial lactic cheeses. But most cheeses are made with both souring and rennet: the latter being used to clot the slightly acid milk. English cheeses are characteristically much more acid than Continental ones, and this fact may well be related with their history. Cheese-making is traditionally one of the duties of the farmer's wife in England. An eighteenth-century book on dairying is dedicated to the excellent dairy-women of Great Britain and asks... how should a Man know anything of Cheese making?
Continental farm-workers, however, made the cheese themselves; having jobs to do elsewhere, they could not wait for it to become very acid, and so evolved cheeses very different from the English kinds. In other ways, too, English cheeses are more troublesome to make. Indeed, perhaps they are altogether unsuitable for factory production: the Danes, who, without a national cheese of their own, have imitated French, German, Swiss, Italian and Norwegian cheeses, have never gone in for English varieties. English cheeses suffer particularly under factory conditions, since they require so much individual attention and factory owners are interested primarily in high output, doing everything possible to speed the manufacturing processes. Factory Stilton, for example, is pricked with rods to allow more oxygen to enter the cheese, and this results in a more rapid growth of the blue-vein mould which is chiefly responsible for Stilton ripening. Some English microbiologistshave commented recently that
The old type of unpricked Stilton, with its wide veining, ripens slowly ... The modern pricked type ripens more rapidly, but it often has a fine close veining, and has lost some of its subtle flavour and long keeping quality.