Love it or hate it, cheese remains the king of Italian tables. We eat it every day, with bread, with pasta, on its own. Aged or fresh, hot or cold, as an ingredient in complex dishes or on its own. We eat it while feasting and we eat it while dieting. We use it to make anything and everything, from starters to desserts, and it ends up in our plates at all times of the day, from breakfast to aperitivo.
Cheese has a history as long and ancient as that of Mankind: specialists believe prehistoric man discovered by chance how to produce it and we never quite stopped since then. The Egyptians were quite fond of goat cheese and mentions to cheese are found also in the Bible. The Greeks and the Romans loved it and produced in large quantities.
Yet, Italians got serious about cheese for real in medieval times, when some of our best loved cheeses were created and cheese truly became the staple of our cuisine. It’s a story of monks, hermits and taxes. A story that begins on the humblest of Italian tables, rose to royal popularity and has been continuing today.
IT’S ALL IN THE NAME
Even the Italian word for cheese, formaggio, finds its roots in the Middle Ages: linguists underline it became common in the 13th century and that it originated from the Old French “fromage,” itself loaned from the late Latin term “formaticum,” which means “put into shape.” In those times, every household in the countryside produced cheese: sheep, goats and cows were invaluable patrimony for farmers, who would very rarely kill them for meat, preferring to take advantage of their virtually endless milk production. Truth is that, however, milk was barely consumed as such, and was almost entirely used to make cheese, which was a nutritious, cheap and easily available source of proteins.
It was particularly popular in our northern regions, but well known in the South, too: the famous Salerno school of medicine, the most ancient medical school in the world, already discussed the virtues and, alas, dangers of consuming too much cheese between the 12th and 13th century, suggesting to consume it in small quantities. Difficult to follow their directives, however, for the hundreds of thousands of people who didn’t have the money to put meat on their table on a regular basis. Medievalist and food historian Massimo Montanari, cited in a very interesting article from Italian history monthly Focus Storia, emphasizes how cheese was mentioned incredibly often in medieval documents, proving how common a food it was and how profoundly tied to the socio-cultural fabric of the country it already was in those centuries.
IN COME THE MONKS!
Popular as it was, cheese would have remained the food of peasants and farmers, were it not for the ingenious ways of Northern Italian monks, inventors of the emperor of cheeses: grana. We have to ideally travel to the fertile plains south of Milan, sometimes after the year 1135, when the Abbey of Chiaravalle was founded. Here, Cistercian monks began an extensive deforestation process to turn woods around the abbey into farmland, which they supplied with plenty of water thanks to an advanced irrigation system. With such a wealth of space and forage at their disposal, the monks increased their cattle numbers, ending up with large quantities of milk. But what to do with it, how to preserve it? Well, doing what everyone else around there did, you may think: making cheese.
You’re right, but things weren’t so simple. Up to then, production was limited to fresh cheeses which, albeit lasting much longer than milk, still had a pretty limited shelf life. Mind, not that medieval spoiled cheese was such a bad idea: legend says that the coming to be of gorgonzola, Italy’s best known blue, happened quite by chance sometimes between the 10th and the 12th century, when a bunch of stracchino wheels got moldy.
That wasn’t the monks of Chiaravalle’s cup of tea, though. Being known cheese producers, so, they had an idea: cooking milk curd for long to obtain a thicker cheese that could be matured and preserved for longer. They called it caesus vetus (mature cheese, quite literally), we know it today as grana padano.
Cheese: the food of monks and farmers. Or so it was at the beginning, in the Dark Ages. Soon enough, though, even the wealthiest of lords ended up with a slice of cheesy goodness on his brocade-clad tables. Farmers almost never owned the lands they worked and had to pay rent. More often than not, this wasn’t done with money, but with produce and foods: thanks to this, cheese made it onto the table of Italy’s rich and famous, who couldn’t have enough of the deliciously tangy thing, once upon a time considered a lowly, undignified product.
SOME LAST CURIOSITY ABOUT MEDIEVAL CHEESE
… And so it goes the story of Italian cheese and of how the medieval mind made it famous.
Come here, though. I have some more curiosities for you:
It is in the Middle Ages that the Italian habit of eating cheese at the end of a meal developed: apparently, it was suggested by doctors of the time to do so.
According to food historians, more than 20 types of cheese we still consume regularly today were created in the Middle Ages. Along with grana and gorgonzola, we should mention also Friuli’s Montasio: even if it acquired its name only in the late 18th century, its production had begun in the Abbey of Moggio Udinese, sometimes in the 1200s.
Mozzarella was known already by the Greeks inhabiting the South of Italy in the 6th and 5th century BC, but got its name in the Middle Ages, when people started to associate the cheese with the act of “mozzare” (to cut), necessary to make single mozzarellas from larger curd pieces.
More about mozzarella, which was produced also in the Abbey of San Lorenzo in Capua, in the Campania province of Caserta. According to a 12th century document, the monks offered it to all pilgrims passing by.
The patron saint of cheese makers is Saint Lucius: he lived in the 13th century, when he would make cheese to feed the poor off the milk of his landlord’s estate. He was killed for it.