Sunday April 14, 2024

Cheese through the ages

By Mubarak Ali
February 11, 2019

History-writing is changing and its scope expanding. A group of historians have shifted their attention from political history to the history of things that reflect the social and cultural norms of society.

Another interesting concern is the history of food. Since food is the basic necessity of all human beings, historians have examined the progress that human civilisations have made from eating raw meat and vegetables to cooking food. Spices were used to add flavour to food and professional cooks were trained to develop new cuisines for aristocratic classes.

At this stage, books on food recipes were written to guide cooks to prepare special food. Royal kitchens across the world became sites where some of the most delicious cuisine was prepared. During special feasts, guests were offered a vast array of dishes to show the host’s generosity and affluence. Abul Fazl (1551-1602) offers some details of the Royal Mughal Kitchen in ‘Aayeen-e-Akbari’, which shows the variety of bread, rice and meat dishes that were cooked with the help of various spices. While describing the culture of Lucknow, Abdul Haleem Sharar (1860-1926), an historian and Indian author, writes about competitions that were held among nobles whereby each of them would serve unique cuisines at banquets and make every attempt to surpass each other.

Although cheese wasn’t widely eaten during the Mughal period, it was quite a popular item in most ancient civilisations and was especially used in pastoral societies. On this topic, Paul Kindstedt’s book titled ‘Cheese and Culture: A History of Cheese and its Place in Western Civilization’, published in 2012, provides useful details on how cheese is made and used.

According to Kindstedt, cheese was a popular ingredient in the Sumerian civilisation and was liked by Goddess Inanna. It was not only prepared in her temple, but was also offered to her as a ritual by her devotees. There was a painting on the wall of Goddess Inanna’s temple that showed the process of milking cattle and preparing yogurt and cheese.

Cheese was also used as an ingredient in other civilisations, except in Vedic culture. This was because it was customary for people to eat freshly-cooked food in Vedic society. Since the Sumerians had strong trade relations with the Egyptians and the Hittites of Anatolia, they were able to introduce cheese to these societies.

Even the Greeks were fond of cheese and offered cheese cakes to Asclepius, the deity of health, to please her and on special occasions when their wishes were fulfilled. It was also a tradition that during symposiums – drinking parties that took place after meals at a banquet – cheese cake was offered to guests at the end of a party.

The tradition of making cheese continued during the Roman period and the Roman nobility, which was involved in agricultural activities, were interested in innovative experiments in cheese-making. Cato the Elder (234BC-149 BC), who was a member of the Roman Senate and possessed agricultural land and cattle, wrote a book on the various recipes on cheese-making. Pliny the Elder (23AD-79 AD), the author of book ‘Natural history’, wrote that the Persian prophet Zoroaster depended on cheese during the 20 years that he lived in a desert.

In Europe, cheese-making was popularised by the priests of monasteries. In addition to spending time in worship, it was their duty to bake bread, milk cattle, and prepare cheese that was consumed by fellow priests. It is said that Charlemagne, the holy Roman emperor, once spent the night in a monastery while he was travelling to some parts of his empire. At that time, he was not in a mood to eat meat. The bishop of the monastery offered him cheese that was made by the priests. The emperor liked the taste of cheese as soon as he put a piece of it in his mouth. He asked the bishop to regularly supply cheese to his palace.

The climate of Europe suits to the process of making cheese. Therefore, it has been favoured by all classes of society. Holland became especially famous for producing dairy products, including cheese. In addition, the peasants of France also took a deep interest in cheese and conducted countless experiments to prepare its different varieties. At present, cheese has become one of the most preferred food items in Europe because it is nourishing, cheap and easily accessible to all sections of society.

In Ancient India, cheese was not accepted as a food item owing to strict religious conditions whereby people were expected to eat freshly-cooked food. But in present-day India, cheese has become quite popular and has even been used an alternative for meat. Different delicious cuisines are cooked with the help of cheese. In Pakistan, where a large segment of the population is addicted to eating meat, there is a pressing need for people to develop a taste for cheese and use it to prepare a whole range of dishes. Cheese is, after all, healthy and affordable.

The writer is a veteran historian and scholar.