Say, "Cheese."

by Bill St. John

Some terrific foods and drinks began as accidents. Beer wasn't invented by some dude in a flannel shirt and suspenders tinkering with a formula, but most likely by a pre-Egyptian who unthinkingly left out his soupy porridge in the Sinai sun. I imagine wine got its start in a similar way: An ancient Persian with bad aim having sat on some grapes he was about to eat and, angry with himself, marched his Mesopotamian derrière to the washroom, forgot about the mishap, came back a few days later and found the puddle of grape juice to have, um, changed. Felicitously. 

And cheese. Who came up with cheese as a good idea? Bossie didn't. It's spoiled milk. Unless you play with it a lot after it turns rotten, it just stays bad yogurt. Someone once had had to say, "Away with these curds!" — but then had second thoughts, didn’t want to waste, and put the glop into — of course! why didn’t I think of that?! — a calf's stomach, where, in combination with the wild bacteria forever in our air (and even the air of an empty calf's stomach), the rennet that's native there further coagulated and firmed the curds into the first cheese. 

So, beer, wine, cheese — many a fermented thing — were indeed miracles and well-positioned humblers to the scurrying Egos late crawled out of the ooze and even so running around acting as if in charge of things. 

And, well, bless the egos in those Egos, for that's how, over much time, they have turned four simple things — milk, bacteria, coagulant, and salt — into hundreds, even thousands, of different cheeses. 

How they have taken newbie cheese that isn't too much more than farmer's or cottage cheese and toyed with it, molded it, let it dry and age, and turned it into, say, a cloth-bound Cheddar from England, or a mammoth wheel of Parmigiano-Reggiano from northern Italy. How they have found that the milk of not only cow, but also of nanny and yak and mare and camel and water buffalo and reindeer and moose and ewe and ewe-over-there make cheese. How they've discovered that piling on even more mold makes marvelous cheeses (bloomy rinds such as Brie and its brothers, or blues that they've called Roquefort or Gorgonzola). And how they somehow figured out that, if they splashed salty water and liquor all over their aging cheeses, they could come up with some of the funkiest, most odiferous, gooiest, stickiest — and yet most ethereal and heart-stoppingly delicious — cheeses that ever came to be (such as Époisses or Gruyère). 

All on purpose, that is. Who knows what other terrific tasty is somewhere accidentally coming to be? As for the mishaps that we've taken on, we're mopping up after them just fine.