Issue 11, Semester 2, 2019
If Melbourne Law School were a country, the cheeseboard would be its national dish. At any one of dozens of events throughout the year, a spread of crumbled cheddar, stilton and brie will invariably be on hand, ranging from the simple affairs of lunchtime lectures, to the thousand-dollar constructions of networking and graduate events. In addition to providing a meal replacement for impecunious students, the cheeseboard itself bears a proud history, ranging from the humble origins of dairy in prehistory, to the heights of gastronomic invention in the modern age.
Cheese is possibly the oldest man-made food, requiring only two geographical conditions for its invention: a landscape suitable for cattle, sheep and goats, and a warm climate facilitating the curdling of milk (historically by accident rather than design). These conditions were notably prevalent in the climates of North Africa, West Asia and the Mediterranean. Pictorial reliefs from Jemdet Nasr show Sumerians milking cattle and engaging in some form of milk processing, suggesting that cheesemaking may have taken place in Mesopotamia at least as early as 3500-2800 BC, whilst archeological evidence from Spain, France and the Libyan Sahara suggests that some form of diary cultivation and possibly cheesemaking took place as far back as 15000-20000 BC. Cheesemaking was well established in the Greek and Roman empires, where it was used as a means of storing milk in hot climates. Only in the far East, particularly India, was cheese rare, with milk considered on religious grounds to be a liquid and sickly excretion, unfit for human consumption.
Early cheesemaking was very much a hit or miss affair, only gradually improving over many centuries through trial and error. Early techniques were family or possibly village affairs, jealously guarded in the remote valleys or high alpine meadows where cheese was produced and enjoyed. During the Iron Age the growth of towns and cities and the development of an independent agricultural class servicing the food requirements of urban centres saw cheese make its way into the diets of those who could afford it, however it was not until the Renaissance that cheese as a delicacy began to make its way onto the plates of European elites. The development of a more ‘beautiful existence’ manifested itself not only in the arts of painting, poetry, music and architecture, but also in the food eaten and manners displayed at the table. A newly minted mercantile class allowed regional foods to be traded beyond the geographical boundaries they were previously locked within, whilst advancements in metallurgy leading to better blades and knives gave rise to the practice of cutting food into smaller sample-sized portions more pleasing to the eye. The delicate shades of flavour offered by cheeses, and their gustatory compatibility with wines and spirits similarly seeing a resurgence during the period, made cheese the ideal food for the new culture of artisanal cuisine.
Despite its prevalence, cheesemaking nevertheless remained a cottage industry until the eighteenth century due to the inherent volatility of bacteriological cultivation prior to modern scientific advancements. With such protean quality, a culinary focus on cheese as an independent dish did not begin in earnest until cheesemaking became a controllable industry following the work of German chemist Justus von Liebig, (famous for laboratory advancements in parthenogenetic research, food poisoning and hygiene) and the mass-production of rennet and cheesemaking enzymes. Even so, research into old menus shows that dedicated cheese courses are a relatively new invention, more suited to small dining experiences that developed with commercial restaurant dining during the late nineteenth century, rather than the set table d’hôtel menus used for functions and banquets. This is unsurprising, as the service of a selection of four to six cheeses to dozens or even hundreds of guests would be an incredibly difficult and time-consuming endeavour.
According to Le Livres des Menus, a selection of several hundred famous menus of grand occasions, published in 1912, dedicated cheese courses were still a rarity in the late nineteenth century. The earliest recorded cheese course served at the end of a meal may have been on the 1870 menu of Café Voisin in Paris, which concluded with fromage Gruyere. A 1910 luncheon menu from the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York, ‘en l’honneur de M. Escoffier’ concluded with a dish of camembert and figs. The earliest cheeseboard itself may have been served on the menu of a 1916 Paris luncheon, which concluded with a course of Roquefort, Port Salut and Gruyere.
In the interwar period, cheeseboards became a popular dining choice for social gatherings, well suited to displaying extravagant foods as sides, such as charcuterie, terrines and caviars. Apocryphal accounts suggest that cheeseboards were popularised amongst European high society by exiled Russian aristocrats following the Russian Revolution. Forced to live off the charity of their Western counterparts, budget-conscious household staff and patrons of the mendicant nobility supposedly began presenting cheese selections as a post-dinner course in place of comparatively expensive dessert dishes. Another possibility is that cheeseboards became popular during the opulence of the twenties, as the slowing effects of high fat and protein foods on the absorption of ethanol allowed for more alcohol to be consumed before intoxication.
During the second half of the twentieth century, new dining practices were needed to service the corporate culture of the post-WW2 economy. Cheeseboards once again became prominent as an affordable alternatives to hors d’oeuvres, with lower preparation and service costs. In the eighties and nineties, popular opinion vacillated, as processed American cheeses flooded the market, perceived as cheap lacking the quality demanded by high-profile business settings. Following the turn of the century however, rising demand for non-cheddar cheeses revitalised specialty and artisanal cheese production, in turn prompted the return of the cheeseboard in its modern format.
Something to consider next time you reach for some Gouda.
Lester is the pen-name of a Second Year JD Student.