I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
Yak cheese anyone? How about horse cheese? Alpaca, llama, donkey, deer, zebra, in fact any mammal can be the source of cheese, including humans. In May 2011, a New York gallery offered patrons the chance to sample cheese made from human breast milk. An art installation entitled "The Lady Cheese Shop" was created by Miriam Simun. She is quoted by Reuters as saying, “Some people are loving it, and some people are gagging.”
Sooooo, moving right along…
The Dark Side of Cheese
As with sausage, there are a lot of things about cheesemaking that we should probably not know about.
People have been eating cheese for all of recorded history and probably before that. Cheesemaking came about by accident because milk was carried around in bags made from the stomachs of ruminants, such as cows. That’s where the enzyme rennet hangs out. Rennet curdles milk, separating the solids (curds) from liquids (whey). Curdling is a nice way of saying the milk has gone off, as when it’s all lumpy and smelly in the fridge.
Today, rennet is harvested from the fourth stomach of newly slaughtered calves, lambs, piglets, kids of the goat persuasion, etc. The stomach lining is washed, dried, cut up, and soaked in brine.
Vegetable rennet can be produced from plants to satisfy the demands of vegans.
The Cheesemaking Process
The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) point out another little-known cheese fact. Mammals only produce milk when they are nursing. To keep cows constantly producing milk, they are subjected to an endless cycle of pregnancy and birth. When cows are inseminated artificially, they are restrained in an apparatus PETA refers to as a “rape rack.”
Blue cheeses, such as Stilton, Roquefort, and Gorgozola, are deliberately made mouldy in a move that no marketing department would allow today.
But the folks in Sardinia go a step, two steps, oh many steps farther. In the process of making Casu Marzu cheese, holes are poked in a wheel of pecorino. Flies lay eggs in the cavities (okay, turn away if you wish), the resulting maggots eat their way through the cheese and, presumably, leave behind maggot poo. The whole shebang is then ready for eating, maggots as well if you are so inclined.
Apparently, the name Casu Marzu translates from Sardinian into “rotten/putrid cheese.” No kidding.
Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Cheese But Were Too Squeamish to Ask
"Turophile" is the word used to describe a connoisseur of cheese. These folk already know this stuff, so what follows is for the rest of us mere mortals.
Mice don’t much like cheese. The little critters have a delicate sense of smell, and some of the more pungent cheeses repel them. (One can empathize.) Dr. David Holmes of Manchester Metropolitan University in England has studied the menu preferences of mice and says what they really like is sweet things, fruit, and grains.
Speaking of Stinky Cheese...
Vieux-Boulogne claims the title of the world’s stinkiest cheese. It is made in northern France from unpasteurized cow’s milk. It can knock down a squad of French legionnaires at a distance of 50 paces (made that bit up).
There’s a bacterium called brevibacterium linens that causes the fragrance rising from an old pair of sneakers. It’s the same bacterium that gives some cheeses, particularly limburger, their bouquet.
There’s a farm in Sweden that produces moose cheese. It houses three lactating moose that will give up about two litres of milk at a session (a dairy cow produces about 25 litres a day). The farm produces about 300 kilos of moose cheese a year and it sells for about $1,000 a kilo ($455 a pound). There are an estimated 850,000 moose in Canada but nobody makes moose cheese. However, Canada’s moose are all wild and it’s not advisable to go into the bush with a bucket to start milking one. Moose can be quite bad tempered if disturbed in their natural habitat.
Cheese Is Addictive
Everybody who eats cheese knows it’s addictive, now we’ve got science to back that up. A study published by the U.S. National Library of Medicine notes that casein, a protein found in cheese, causes opiates called casomorphins to be released during digestion. Dietitian Cameron Wells says “[Casomorphins] really play with the dopamine receptors and trigger that addictive element.” Yep, cheese is the crack of the dining table.
Most of us know this but that horrible goo called Cheez Whiz has no cheese in it.
Time Magazine (January 2014) tells us that “According to the U.S.D.A., Americans eat over 30 pounds of cheese a year. 11.5 pounds of that is mozzarella, which has beaten out cheddar (9.6 pounds) for the second year in a row.” That’s because mozzarella is sprinkled on millions of pizzas a day, sometimes liberally, sometimes sparingly. Pizza Hut alone goes through 300 million pounds of mozzarella a year.
Kyle Chayka writes disdainfully in Time about bags of pre-grated cheese that are “fibrous strings of dairy-like substance that come dusted with preservatives are literally the devil. They make foodies cry. No one should ever be forgiven for buying them, and don’t even ask about Kraft’s green cylinders of atomized Parmesan dust.” Could this have been the genesis of the campaign during the 2016 U.S. election to ban shredded cheese so as to “Make America Grate Again?”
At 888 pages, you’d think The Oxford Cheese Companion (Oxford University Press, 2016) says everything there is to be said about cheese. You’d be wrong to think that. Of the world’s approximately 1,400 varieties of cheese, this tome covers just 244 of them.
G.K. Chesterton once remarked that “Poets have hitherto been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese.” Sir Arthur Conan Doyle might beg to differ:
The cheese-mites asked how the cheese got there,
And warmly debated the matter;
The Orthodox said that it came from the air,
And the Heretics said from the platter.
They argued it long and they argued it strong,
And I hear they are arguing now;
But of all the choice spirits who lived in the cheese,
Not one of them thought of a cow.
The creamery making Wensleydale cheese was close to bankruptcy when the claymation series Wallace and Gromit hit the airwaves in Britain 1989. The favourite cheese of the two characters was Yorkshire’s Wensleydale. Sales took off and the creamery survived.
- “35 Weird Facts Only A True Cheese Lover Would Know.” Bobby Glennon, Cheeserank.com, January 23, 2015.
- “Cheese.” Quite Interesting, undated.
- “Canadian Moose Cheese.” The Canada Cheese Man, undated.
- “Cheese really is Crack. Study Reveals Cheese is as Addictive as Drugs.” Jenn Harris, Los Angeles Times, October 22, 2015.
- “10 Crazy Facts about Cheese.” Dan Myers, The Daily Meal, June 6, 2016.
- “Why Mozzarella Is the Worst Cheese There Is.” Kyle Chayka, Time, January 21, 2014.
© 2017 Rupert Taylor
Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on March 02, 2017:
WOW! Cheese is one of the few foods I never get tired of; and here you told things I'm not so glad to know. Thanks anyway, I really should know.