Sunday, 23 June 2013

Cheesecloth or not? What did the Romans use?

wikimedia commons

Sunday Sidetrack

Okay ... I admit to spending loads of time procrastinating yesterday. I got sidetracked by a teensie little reference I made in my current writing in progress.   

Cheesecloth?  Did the Romans actually use cheesecloth to separate the curds and the whey? 

I knew already that the Romans made cheeses and that a version of the hard cheese called Pecorino Romana was made in Roman times. I was guessing that a similar form of it was likely to be made in Roman Britain. 

Off I went to investigate.

Lucius Junius Moderatus Columella, a Roman writer (AD4 – AD 70 approx.), provides us with a history of Roman agriculture in his ‘De Re Rustica’ 12 volume treatises. It is the most important work of its time, with many pieces of detailed information including the production of Romano cheese. 

wikimedia commons
Since he was writing in ‘my time period’ his information is very valuable, and I’m presuming what he describes was a general practice throughout the empire.

A translation provides us with useful information that describes the temperatures needed during the processes and the ‘rennet’ used. He details the separation process of extracting the whey - i.e. when the milk is curdled it must be transferred to ‘wicker baskets, cheese-vats or moulds’ to allow the whey to run free. Columella then describes the pressing processes and the salting processes - that is of salt being added to the outside of the cheese after it is in its first moulded state. He also gives description of how the cheeses need to be set out to dry, not touching each other, in a shaded area, and then how they may be stacked for further storage.

The types of cheese he is describing, the hardest varieties, were also able to travel overseas, meaning a longer lasting cheese that had been stored for months before consumption.

I am guessing that this would have been the kind of cheese which probably made its way to Britain via the Roman Classis. (Navy). The technology of making cheese would also have been known in Roman garrisons in Britain and the production of it an improtant function since it was part of the basic rations doled out to every regular soldier. I like to think that the cheeses made in the larger garrisons would have been sent out on baggage trains, to be included as part of the rations of a soldier on campaign.
Pecorino Romano - wikimedia commons

Sadly what seems to be clear from my searches is that Columella made no reference at all to the use of cloth for binding the cheese, even though an appropriate cloth of suitable weave was available at that time. From that I have to deduce that cloth was probably not used and I have removed the reference from my novel.  

Of course, it is also known that the Celts made cheese. Some of that may have been of a softer mroe 'cottage-cheese' texture but other cheese may have been harder and kept cool in underground storage chambers called souterrains.  

If you can add anything to my researches I'll be most grateful. Drop me a line if you have ever read of cheesecloth being used in ancient times.

Types of Romano Cheese:
Pecorino Romano - This cheese is made solely from the milk of a sheep, the resultant colour being very white. It has a sharp salty tang, and has a granular texture which is good for grating.
Vaccino Romano/ Vacchino Romano – Cow’s milk is used for this and the colour is a creamy yellow.
Caprino Romano – this is made from goat’s milk.

There are numerous useful sites on the internet to explore this topic.

I'm off for a cheese sandwich for lunch.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Thank you for reading my blog. Please pop your thoughts about this post in the comment box. :-)