450 Years of Herbs in Cheese

Today, I wanted to post another small detail from the Macer Floridus, this one pertaining to making cheese:

1583 Its (mint) juice aids small cheeses not to rot if it is added or the green herb is placed upon the cheese.

There is not a lot here, but the passage is interesting in that it indicates different sizes and types of cheese existed, and that storing them was considered challenging. Mint has certain antiseptic properties and probably works better at preserving cheeses than as a contraceptive pessary (line 1581 in the same text – ouch).

Now, small cheeses and herbs go together in all kinds of ways, and the much later Oeconomia ruralis et domestica by Johannes Coler lays this out in much greater detail:

(Marginalia: Sage cheese or marjoram cheese or pepperwort cheese, how these should be made)

You make sage cheese or marjoram cheese or pepperwort cheese this way: First, you lay a handful of curds into the cheese strainer, then you lay in a sage leaf or two or three next to each other onto the mats, then you throw on a handful of curds more.

(Marginalia: to make Querge)

If you wish to prepare Querge, put renneted curds into a sack and lay a stone on it so it presses out the whey. After an hour, put it into a bowl, knead it, and leave it standing for eight days. When you wish to prepare Querge, you put in beforehand what you wish. You put in saffron to make it yellow, you put in caraway, and then you shape the Querge in many forms as you please, with two, three or four points so it is a joy to see. Or you cut sage leaves or marjoram or pepperwort, or you add mustard seed, or what else you want that is healthy to people. Then you lay them on a cheese basket in a drying attic (Darren) or on hurdles and let them dry in the air. They do not turn out well in heated rooms. Many hang them in the smoke, but these also do not turn out good. Then you lay them in a heap in a pantry or or into a chest, or in casks, that way they will turn out good.

(Marginalia: Cheeses that are tough, how to make them crumbly (mürbe))

When the cheeses are too hard and tough, sprinkle them with beer or salt water and store them in a cask or chest on top of each other, that way they will turn out good and crumbly. Some like them maggoty and only strew on flour, despite the fact that they easily become maggoty on their own and you can well do without maggots in your cheese. Cheeses that are old and tough are very unhealthy, and the closer cheeses are to milk , the healthier and more digestible they are. See above the thirtieth chapter.

The LXXI Chapter: How to Guard Cheeses against Worms

(Marginalia: To guard cheese against worms)

Aureolus Theophrast: Paracelsus Liber 3 de natura rerum at the end writes that you should lay the herb hyppericon or perforatam, also known as St John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum), with cheeses. This has the wondrous power of guarding cheese from all worms. When you simply lay it next to or upon the cheeses just so that it touches them, no worm will grow within. If there are any worms inside already, they must all die and drop out. That is why a householder should always have this herb on hand, owing to its great power, virtue, and efficacy.

The LXXII Chapter: Of Cheeses that are Very Hard or Tough

(Marginalia: to make cheeses that are hard or tough become crumbly)

If you wish to make hard or tough cheeses crumbly (mürbe), take Mihr or Meier (this is a herb that grows among cabbages; it is similar to marjoram and comes in two kinds, white and red), and beet leaves (Beete oder Beisse), the learned call it Betam. There are also two kinds, the red of which we make red beets, and the white with which you fatten pigs. Take these two herbs together and lay a layer of them into a cask, then a layer of cheeses, then again a layer of Meier and Beta, and a layer of cheese, and so forth, and thus set it in a cellar.

Querge (cognate with Quark) seems to be a kind of Handkäse, homemade small cheeses made with buttermilk that are low in fat and high in protein. Meier is most likely oregano (Origanum vulgare), also known as Dost or Meierkraut in modern German dialects. Now this is a universe of practical knowledge, and we are likely barely scratching the surface even here. The problem this illustrates is that our sources for the early centuries of the medieval period are few and sparse, but we often find parallels with later, better documented practices. The question then is how far we can take these parallels. In this matter, I am a confessed maximalist. there is nothing in the Oeconomia that is inherently improbable in 1160, no tool or ingredient unknown, and I believe we are looking, in broad terms, at a continuous tradition. I can’t prove it, though.

Johann Coler’s Oeconomia ruralis et domestica was a popular book on the topic of managing a wealthy household. It is based largely on previous writings by Coler and first appeared between 1596 and 1601. Repeatedly reprinted for decades, it became one of the most influential early works of Hausväterliteratur. I am working from a 1645 edition.

The Macer Floridus is a herbal that was extremely popular throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance in all of Europe, and especially in Germany. It was most likely written in the mid-eleventh century by Odo of Meung, but this is somewhat uncertain and the early version could date from as early as the ninth century. Its final form of 77 chapters, drawing on material from Constantinus Africanus, certainly existed by 1100. We know with certainty that it was not authored by the classical Roman writer Aemilius Macer to whom early editors ascribed it.

The Macer is a relatively brief treatment of the pharmaceutical properties of various plants, drawing on various classical and medieval sources. It does not contain culinary recipes, but some remarks in it are nonetheless interesting from that perspective. I excerpted several paragraphs I found interesting with a view to culinary preparation, feasting, and lifestyle medicine. It should not need saying that these are not medical recommendations. While some recipes in Macer may actually have an appreciable effect, others can be seriously dangerous, and none hold up to modern evidence-based practice.

I am relying on the scholarly edition of 1834 and a German translation by Johannes Gottfried Mayer and Konrad Goehl that is still in print.

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