Friday, March 25, 2011

Say What?

Dear Cheese Snob,

Why do they call it "cheese"?

Eddie Etymology


Dear Eddie,

Ooh!  I love questions like this.  Thank you for asking, because it allows us to talk about the history of cheese.

While nobody has been able to pinpoint the exact year cheese was first developed, from archaeological artifacts, we can surmise some form of dairying goes back to about 8,000 BCE, when sheep were first domesticated by nomadic hunters living in the Near East.  (By 5,000 BCE, cows and goats were also domesticated.)

According to my big Webster's New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, the word "cheese" is derived from a few languages, but the earliest is Urdu, the language derived from those spoken in the Near East during the Mesolithic age.  In Urdu, chĭz means "thing." 
How did the Urdu word for "thing" become the English word for "result of the controlled spoilage of milk"?  I don't know, I wasn't there, but let's keep going with this etymology thing. 

As the nomadic people of the Near East made their way up to the European continent, which had recently been uncovered from all the ice that had enveloped it, they stopped here and there with their animals.  During the 5th millennium BCE, nomads had gotten domesticated sheep and goats to Italy, southern France and North Africa.  During this time, humans had discovered how to make pottery, allowing greater ease in heating milk and making strainers to drain whey.

The Latin word for cheese is caseus.  While Latin itself came well after the 4,000 BCE years, it is derived from PIE, the Proto-Indo-European language, which was spoken in the region during the time some of these nomads settled and began making cheese.

As time progressed and groups of people moved throughout the European continent, bringing with them their animals, their cheese-making recipes, and their languages, we can see how the word "cheese" developed:
In Middle English, the word for cheese is chese.
In Anglo-Saxon, the word for cheese is cese.
In Late Latin, the word for cheese is casius.

Thus, "cheese."

We can look to other modern languages to see their names for cheese, too, and note the similarities.

Albanian: djathë (I know that looks nothing like the word "cheese," but go here and listen to the word being spoken.  It's a little bit of a stretch, but it does sound similar to "kaas.")
Dutch: kaas
English: cheese
Galician (a Spanish dialect): queixo 
German: Käse
Indonesian: keju
Irish: cáis
Italian: cacio (but keep reading!)
Portuguese: queijo
Spanish: queso
Welsh: caws

So, you see, this is why cheese is called "cheese"!  Aren't you glad you asked?

Okay, you might be thinking, but then what about the way in which the French, the people who seem to love cheese more than any of us in the world*, say "cheese"?  How the heck does "fromage" fit in here?
We can thank the Holy Roman Empire for that one, because they were really good at bringing their language all over the continent. 
Even though we learned the Latin word for "cheese" is caseus, the Romans also used formaticum, likely for when they were referring to aged cheeses.  Formaticum is a declension of formare, "to form." And the "form" is what the cheesemaker puts the curds into so the cheese will solidify into the desired shape.  (Another word for "form" is "mold" but not the blue kind, silly.)
So, from formaticum, we get...
French: fromage
Catalan (a Spanish dialect): formatge
Italian: formaggio

*Some of you might think you can catch me here, but you can't, because I already know the Greeks as a people eat more cheese, per capita, than anyone on the planet.  The last data I could find online was from 1997, but it shows the Greeks eat almost two pounds more cheese than the French in a year.  At least this is what the USDA Foreign Agricultural Service tells me. 

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Brie: A Counter-Proposal

Hey, Cheese Snob Wendy!

So, friends brought over a small wheel of brie for lunch today. I started talking about the "ripeness" and how you can leave it to sit for a while to make it softer and more ripe, similar to leaving fruit for a few days. Then I realized I had no idea whether what I was saying was true! But I knew who would know....

Lorraine Lunch


Dear Lorraine,

You are correct! If you leave it to sit out on the counter, and not refrigerate it, it'll ripen more quickly. I'm a little bit of a food weirdo, so I leave my brie out for a few days, but my kitchen is relatively cool.

And remember, ALL cheese likes to be eaten at room temperature.  Why is that?  Well, without putting you, dear reader, to sleep, I'll keep it simple:
"Tasting" food involves engaging your taste-buds, respiratory system and brain into detecting volatile organic compounds (aka "flavor") emerging from the food.  These compounds are released at about room temperature.

To give you an even shorter explanation: Butterfat.  Butterfat holds a lot of the flavor, and butterfat is solid when cold and unctuous at room temperature.  You want it unctuous.

Now, if you are not a food weirdo like me, and you prefer to refrigerate your cheese, please keep a few things in mind when bringing cheese to room temperature:
  1. Keep that cheese wrapped!  Or in a container of some sort!  You don't want it to dry out.
  2. The time it takes for your cheese to achieve room temperature has much to do with the temperature of your room.  Cooler room = more time.  Hot room = not too much time.
  3. The time it takes for your cheese to achieve room temperature has much to do with the texture of your cheese.  Harder cheese = more time.  Softer cheese = less time.
  4. The rule of thumb is about a half-hour to a full hour, but you may adjust according to the two rules listed above.

One more important thing to remember: Even if left out all day, your cheese isn't likely to "go bad."  Unless the cheese is something very soft and fresh like cream cheese or fresh ricotta, and you're keeping it directly in the equatorial sun, the worst that will happen is, the butterfat will become completely liquefied and rise to the surface of the cheese.  It will look like oil because that's what it is.  There is no need for alarm.  Just eat the dang cheese, already.