Medieval autumn cheese: what you need to know

The very first medieval recipe I ever experimented with was Tart de Bry, an open pastry tart made with, yes, you’ve guessed it, Brie cheese. Well, at least Brie was probably the cheese in the original Normandy recipe. And for my very first experiment I was trying to be tres autentik, to fabricate some Anglo-Norman French.

The recipe I was actually using, however, was not French at all but from the English work, Forme of Cury (‘How to Cook’), Richard II’s official cookery book, which dates to about 1390. And despite Brie (spelt ‘Bry’) being in the recipe title, the English instructions say to use ‘chese ruayne’, that is, rowen cheese.

Brie de Meaux, at least that’s what Wikipedia says. When fully ripe, it is uncontrollably gooey. Image attribution: By Coyau / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35669387

What’s rowen cheese?

The simple answer is that it is (or, rather, was) cheese made from the milk of cows that have been grazing on rowen, the second growth of grass, or hay, in one season. So we are talking about a seasonal cheese, and the season for second growth of pasture grasses is autumn.

That sounds simple enough, doesn’t it? Well, it gets more complicated once you try to: (a) define the cheese’s characteristics, and (b) buy some for a medieval cookery experiment.

What’s Rowen cheese like?

If I were a time-traveller, I would love to go back to the fourteenth century and sniff out what King Richard’s master cooks were using to create their Brie-inspired tarts, but alas! I will never know for sure.

You might be thinking right now that I am exaggerating the problem, at least just a teensy bit. After all, wasn’t rowen cheese just the English equivalent of the cheese famously produced in the town of Meaux in the region of Brie in Northern France since the eighth century: a similar, buttery-soft cheese, gooey when ripe, with somewhat pongy grassy overtones and a bloomy-rind?

Well, I doubt we can speak of such comparisons. Notwithstanding the superb English Brie available today – ‘Baron Bigod’ makes even the French jealous of English cheese – there is no real evidence that rowen cheese would have met such an elevated cheese profile.

And, after all, when Queen Isabella, the French wife of Richard II’s great-grandfather, Edward II, desired to send a cheese gift to Lady Isabella de Vesci, all the way from Westminster to Yorkshire, she sent Brie, not rowen cheese. I hope it wasn’t mid-summer!

meddle it, grate it

Tart de Bry. From Forme of Cury (c.1390). Manchester, John Rylands Library, MS English 7, folio 77. By permission of the University of Manchester.

What intrigues me about rowen cheese is the various ways it is described in both English recipes and French recipes – yes, the French made autumn milk cheese, too. Let’s start with the two English recipes in Forme of Cury.

Tart de Bry*

Take a crust ynche depe in a trape; take ȝolkes of ayroun rawe, & chese ruayne, & medle hit & þe ȝolkes togyder; do þerto poudour gynger, sugur, safroun and salt; do hyt in a trape and bake hyt and messe hyt forth.

‘Brie’ Tart

Take a crust one-inch-deep in a pie dish; take raw egg yolks and rowen cheese, and mix it and the yolks together; add thereto ginger powder, sugar, saffron and salt; do it in a pie dish and bake it, and serve it forth.

Edited text and translation © 2020 Christopher Monk

*In the John Rylands manuscript, from which I’m working, the recipe name is written as ‘Tart debry’. Editors and food historians read this as ‘de Bry’, which seems very reasonable to me.

Here, then, the rowen cheese is mixed – or ‘meddled’ – with raw egg yolks. I can tell you now, mixing Brie with egg yolks is no easy task. Brie is not like cream cheese, so resists every maddening stir of your wooden spoon, and if you try to meddle it up with a food mixer, you get an almighty claggy mess to go with the muddying guilt of caving in to modern convenience.

I would say that something other than Brie is needed, something you can easily break down.

The other recipe in Forme of Cury is that English staple… lasagne!

Loseyns

Tak gode broth & do in an erþen pot; tak flour of payndemayn & make þerof past with water and make þerof thynne foyles as paper wiþ a roller, drye hyt hard & seeþ hit in broth, tak chese ruayne grated & lay it in disches wiþ poudour douce & lay þeron loseyns ysode as hole as þou myȝt, & aboue poudour & chese & so twyes or þryes & serue hit forth.

Lasagne

Take good broth and add it to an earthenware pot; take flour of paindemain and make from this a dough using water, and with a rolling pin make from it leaves as thin as paper; dry it hard and simmer it in broth; take grated rowen cheese and lay it in dishes along with powder douce; and lay on to that the cooked lasagne, as whole as possible, and on top more powder and cheese; and do this two or three times, and serve it forth.

Edited text and translation © 2020 Christopher Monk

So, very straightforwardly, we are told to grate the rowen cheese. I think therefore we can leave aside any notion of a fully ripened Brie, here, unless you want to risk the cheese grater becoming one with your fingers.

It seems that, for our medieval English lasagne, we are searching for a firmer textured rowen cheese.

This brings me to contemporaneous French recipes using autumn cheeses, where slice-ability and capacity for crumbling are the desired characteristics.

Fromage de gain: crumble and slice

Fromage de gain was the fourteenth-century French way of saying ‘rowen cheese’. So, as with the English type, it was produced from cows who had fed on the second growth of grass (or second hay crop) of the season.

For those of you who like your etymologies – doesn’t everyone? – here’s my rather simplified one to show the connection between ‘fromage de gain‘ and ‘rowen cheese’: Old French gain (‘second crop’) is equivalent to regain or rewain (‘second yield’) in Anglo-Norman French, and the Anglo-Norman transliterates into Middle English reuain and its variant ruayne, found in Forme of Cury. Modern English turns reuain/ruayne into rowen. See gain in Old French-English Dictionary, ed. Alan Hindley et al; enter regain in the ‘Jump to’ box of the online Anglo-Norman Dictionary; and see reuain in the online Middle English Dictionary [accessed 14 September 2020].

There are as many as eight fromage de gain recipes in the work known as The Viandier of Taillevent, an extensive collection of recipes written in the fourteenth century by Guillaume Tirel (alias Taillevent), who was the chief cook of King Charles V of France.

Editor and translator of this work, the great scholar Terence Scully, refers to fromage de gain as ‘creamy cheese from milk of pastured cows’ (p. 351, gain). Not wishing to gainsay his attribution of creaminess, I do think this may lead us into some confusion when it comes to understanding the range of characteristics of this type of cheese.

Scully does in fact translate ‘fromage de gain’ in the dish Menus oiseaux – essentially stuffed roasted small birds (larks, quails, thrushes) – as ‘cream cheese’ (p. 45); perhaps he meant ‘creamy cheese’.

The original Old French text points to something intriguing about fromage de gain. In the recipe for Espaules de mouton farcies, stuffed shoulders of mutton, Scully has ‘crumbled creamy cheese’ for ‘fromage de gain esmié’. And for the same phrase in Herissons et petz d’Espaigne – the delightful name in English translates as Hedgehogs and Spanish farts (no hedgehogs harmed, I promise) – and in Pastez nourroys, ‘Norse pies’, he chooses ‘finely crumbled rich cheese’ (all at p. 303).  

Clearly, these three recipes indicate that our French autumn-produced cheese could be crumbly in texture, not something we would associate with a rich, creamy cheese such as Brie. (Scully doesn’t mention Brie or Brie-type cheeses, by the way.)

In addition to these recipes, we have Pipesfarces, for which fromage de gain, or ‘rich cheese’, was cut into thick slices the size of fingers before being coated in a batter and fried (p. 302). And we are told that with the dish Raie, ray fish, ‘some people toast slices of ray liver and put a creamy cheese [‘frommage de gain’] very thinly on top’ (p. 293).

Where to find a multi-purpose autumn cheese?

So, in summary, there are recipes that point to French autumn cheeses as both crumbly and capable of being sliced chunkily or daintily. Add to this the grate-ability and ‘meddling’ properties of English rowen cheese and we evidently have something that has at least some firmness.

Why Richard II’s cook didn’t just call his tart ‘cheese tart’ (tart of chese), I’ll never quite understand, but I will stick my neck out and say that he wasn’t in fact interested in using a Brie-type cheese, at least not a ripe one.

I think any attempt to identify one specific rowen cheese or autumn cheese is fraught with problems. To take this approach is to ignore the fact that cheeses, particularly hand-crafted ones, take on properties of their terroir and of course depend on the qualities of the milk of whichever breed of cattle it comes from.

It also overlooks the fact that medieval cheeses were served both young and aged. Rowen cheese in Forme of Cury doesn’t have to mean the cheese was obtained and consumed in the autumn: it could have been an aged rowen cheese. Tart de Brie and Lasagne may, then, have been winter dishes using a matured autumn-made cheese. We simply cannot be sure.

Having said all that, I must point out that I have not been indolent in relevant cheese research, with the goal of forming some kind of preference or possibility for my rowen cheese in future experiments.

An autumn cheese: Stonebeck Wensleydale cheese, made in September and developing its rind in November (2019): “Very soft and creamy”. This hand-crafted cheese is produced seasonally (early summer to autumn) from a small herd of Northern Dairy Shorthorn cows. My thanks to farmer, Andrew Hattan. © 2019 Stonebeck Raw Wensleydale Cheese/Andrew Hatton.

Indeed, over the weekend, I chatted on the phone with a wonderful farmer, Andrew Hatton. He and his family produce a raw milk cheese, named Stonebeck, in the demanding uplands of the Yorkshire dales. This is a Wensleydale like no other Wensleydale, and as far as I know, Wallace and Gromit have yet to sample it.

The pertinent point for this blog, is that some of the Hatton’s seasonal cheese is produced from early autumn milk. You can see some of last year’s September-produced cheese in the picture, above (and the one top of the page).

However, I have to wait for the 2020 autumn Stonebeck to mature before it appears in my favourite cheese monger in the whole world, Courtyard Dairy, not that far from where I live. Though, since the Hatton’s summer Stonebeck is now available, I really cannot ignore the cheese Syrens. I must avail myself of some forthwith. Just by way of comparison and academic research, of course.

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Published by Christopher Monk

Dr Christopher Monk is creating Modern Medieval Cuisine

14 thoughts on “Medieval autumn cheese: what you need to know

    1. Yes, medieval cheese is a difficult, but fascinating, area of research. I’m a big cheese fan, gradually broadening my experiences eating it. My go-to argument is that my body tells me that I have to eat it. How can I ignore that?

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      1. Do you think you’d ever be able to commission some historical cheese? (Does it work like that?) Or work with a local dairy to produce a small batch of 14th century inspired cheese? Oh, the possibilities!
        I think only fools ignore their body when it so loudly tells them what it needs, and in this case if it needs cheese then cheese it should have! 😆

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      2. I’m not sure about commissioning cheese; someone else on Facebook was asking something similar. I would like a professional chef to have a go at turning some of these dishes into high-end cuisine: a sort of modern-day version of Richard II’s table.

        Cheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeese!

        Liked by 1 person

  1. I wonder if “bry” might be leading you astray in determining the sort of cheese being used? Both because, as you note, the sticky, gooey cheese we know as brie today doesn’t lend itself at all to being grated or crumbled, but also because it doesn’t travel well sans refrigeration, and therefore seems somewhat unlikely to have been all that common in medieval Normandy, much less England. Its Norman cousin, Camembert, wasn’t introduced until the 18th century.

    If the Brie partisans of the Charlemagne story of cheese are correct (Roquefortians claim it’s their cheese in the story, though Brie is certainly much close to Aachen than Roquefort), the cheese of the region in his time was soft, with an edible rind, but we don’t know for certain that it was bloomy. If “bry” does refer to a cheese from the Brie region, it may have been a semi-soft cheese that could travel a little better than what we know as Bries now. On the other hand, it may not refer to that region but to something else.

    Re commissioning “historical cheese”–there are many variables that differentiate one cheese from the next, but the big ones are basically impossible to replicate in the absence of historical cheese itself. Milk varies quite a bit depending on feed and season–which is why some cheeses are only made in autumn for example, and others only in late spring or early summer, and why a cheese made from milk of animals that graze on the wild herbs that cover the hills of Crete will taste different from one made from animals with different diets. Associated with that is the microbiome in which the animals themselves live, but also that the milk is exposed to upon expressing. That microbiome varies from one patch of land to the next, from season to season, etc, and fundamentally, no longer exists, as we now live in a different climate with different temps, humidity levels, species of animals and feed, etc. Historically, cheeses depended on the local wild cultures for their fermentation, and without preserved samples, those cultures can no longer be known or reproduced. Alas. =(

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for your comments. I really appreciate your thoughts.

      I think the point to make about ‘tart de bry’ is that it is ‘of Brie’ only in name. There are numerous examples within Forme of Cury (and elsewhere in medieval English cookery) where names of recipes have been imported but no longer match identically with the ‘original’ recipes. So we have the likes of ‘de syrie’ (‘of Syria’), as a geographical example, and ‘papdele’ (‘pappardelle’), in which wafers are substituted for the pasta, as an example of how an ingredient shifts. Tart de bry, then, is perhaps best understood as a medieval Brie-inspired tart, no more, no less.

      What I was also trying to demonstrate (perhaps I didn’t fully achieve this) is that attempting to recreate ‘tart de bry’ today doesn’t mean using Brie cheese (as I did a few years ago) but rather, following the example of Richard II’s medieval cook, adapting by using something else, something locally available. The interesting, and fun, part for me was discovering how varied ‘rowen’ or autumn-milk cheeses were back then.

      All the reasons you highlight against creating ‘historical’ cheeses are completely valid. I don’t think, however, it stops folk from wanting to get somewhere close to ‘authentic’, even if that is part delusion. More positively, looking at how medieval cheese is described or how modern cheeses behave in recipe experimentation does contribute to an improved knowledge of what medieval cheeses were and were not. I hope you agree?

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  2. Oh, and one other thing just to complicate your life; my understanding is that actually for the French, autumn cheeses are the cheeses that are ready to eat in Autumn, not the ones made from autumn milk! Whether this was case in medieval France is the question, but it would mean that actually you would potentially actually be looking at cheeses such as roquefort and some of the washed rind cheeses.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. https://www.produits-laitiers.com/les-5-fromages-a-deguster-en-novembre/ Most of these are aged ~6 weeks in total. Under natural circumstances, fat content in milk rises in early autumn, which is why certain high-fat cheeses are only made seasonally, with milk from this time period. (Supermarket milk is systematically tweaked so that there’s a consistent amount of milk & protein in the product year-round, but artisan cheeses, and naturally medieval cheeses, follow the natural cycles of the animals and the seasons.)
      It is also the case that many of the larger wheels of alpine cheeses, which are made in summer, aren’t ready until autumn, because they age 4-6 months depending on the size of the wheel. But I’ve not heard them referred to as “fromages d’automne”.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you. I enjoyed looking at these French cheeses!

        Just on the point of medieval French autumn-milk cheeses, these were called ‘fromages de gain’, meaning ‘cheese produced after harvest’ (Old French-English Dicitonary, Hindley et al).

        We get Middle English ‘rewain’ (‘rowen’) and its variants from Anglo-Norman ‘regain’, which is a variant of ‘gain’; you may find my ‘Extra notes…’ post interesting on this.

        Thank you for all your information. It’s very kind of you to share it.

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    2. Thank you, Kiriel. I really appreciate your thoughts.

      Yes, it does seem today that a French autumn cheese may refer to what is best to eat in autumn.

      As regards the medieval French cheeses, the term ‘fromage de gain’ (not ‘d’automne’) does appear to refer to ‘cheese produced after harvest’ (see ‘gain’ in Old French-English Dictionary (HIndley et al). I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to read my ‘Extra notes on “rowen” cheese’ post, but you might find the info in there interesting.

      Thanks again!

      Like

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