Baptism By Cheese
In medieval England, the Groaning Cheese was an important tradition for expectant mothers. Probably about the time that a woman realized she was expecting, she’d make a large wheel of cheese and put it up to age. Nine months is the perfect amount of time for both a baby and a cheese to gestate. When the “groaning time” came, a group of women usually gathered to assist and sit vigil during the birth. And of course, friends, family and plenty of cheek-pinchers would drop in over the following days to fawn over the new baby. An exhausted new mother would be grateful to have food in the house to supply her guests. The Groaning Cheese would be opened and shared by all. It was always cut from the center and hollowed out as each slice was eaten. Eventually, just the outer rind would be left; a ring of hard cheese. For good luck the baby would be passed through the wheel of cheese on his christening day and would thus be blessed with a long and prosperous life. The remaining cheese would be cut into portions and distributed to the young, unmarried women present. Before going to bed that night, the maidens were to put the cheese rind in the toe of their left stocking and throw it over their right shoulder. Retreating to bed, backwards and without speaking, the young ladies would then dream of their future husbands.
Evelyn’s Groaning Cheese is a Sage Cheddar made using the stirred-curd method. On a time and difficulty scale, stirred-curd falls between the farmhouse method and the traditional method, both of which I’ve used before. Here’s a quick overview:
Farmhouse: Curds are cooked, but not cheddared. The wheel is aged for as little as one month.
Stirred-curd: Curds are cooked and cheddared loose. The wheel is aged for 2-6 months.
Traditional: Curds are cooked, matted, sliced into blocks and cheddared. The wheel is aged for up to a year.
After making and cutting the curds, I cooked them for a half an hour at 100-degrees to expel whey and constrict the curds into small firm nuggets. I then drained the curds, but kept them in the pot, floating in the sink of hot water. Mixing the curds every five minutes kept them from matting and acted as the quasi-cheddaring process. If you remember, cheddaring was the way of stacking and rotating blocks of curd to heat and press out whey. The continual heating and mixing of the loose curds achieved much the same goal. In fact, I think the loose curds made a nicer finished wheel in the end, as the blocks of curd were less inclined to be pressed back together after they’d been cheddared. The loose curds also made it easy to mix in salt and sage leaves. I used dried sage this time and reconstituted and sterilized it by boiling it in water for 15 minutes. (When I made Sage Wensleydale, I used fresh sage and sterilized it in the oven.) I like the boiling method better, especially because I was able to add the left over sage-infused water to the milk and hope it will give the cheddar an extra herbal kick.
After aging for about 5 months, the cheese – and Evelyn’s baby – will be born in early August. Although the Groaning Cheese will probably be a little small to actually pass a baby through, I do hope it will provide some sustenance and deliciousness for the happy family… Oh, and I’ll want a piece of that rind back when they’re done. I’ve got a stocking ready and look forward to some sweet dreaming!