Cheese, Cabbage, and Vomit Rooms; Odd Histories
COTTAGE CHEESE. Beloved of dietitians and not exactly give-away cheap today, cottage cheese began life as an easily made cheese for cottagers, or the rural poor. Traditionally known in England as 'Curds and Whey', as in the nursery rhyme 'Little Miss Muffett'. Curds and whey because that is exactly what it was. Unlike a hard and matured cheese, like Cheddar, it was, and is, made by draining rather than pressing; thus keeping some of the whey whilst also leaving the curds loose. Naturally yellow, it is today 'doctored' by natural additions to turn it a more marketable white.
Cheddar cheese, ranging from good old mousetrap to artisan cheese, is the quintessential English hard cow's cheese. The Somerset village of Cheddar always seems to have enjoyed a reputation for producing good cheese. It used its cave complexes for the maturing process. In 1170 the stewards in Henry II's court are recorded as purchasing 10,240 lbs of cheese from Cheddar at a cost of a farthing a pound. Some say the Romans who were all over the Cheddar area mining for lead and releasing their edible snails into the Mendip landscape, let alone bathing in the hot waters of Bath, are credited with the introduction of this cheese (say it quietly, from Gaul).
However, for much of our history, up until somewhere like the mid 17th century, our cheese was predominantly made from ewe's milk - that being a by-product of the vast sheep flocks of medieval England. We even exported this quality cheese to Calais as a record from the Essex port of Maldon illustrates. The early cow cheeses, generic rather than with the names and types we have today, was very hard. Often it must have been more like Parmesan, and required grating. Essex and Suffolk had a particularly bad name for cheese in the 18th century; given local names such as 'Bang' and 'Thump'. The Royal Navy, however, bought it for their ships on the grounds that it was even too hard for the rats to bite through.
Since the 1960s, and foreign travel, we have come a long way with our cheese production in England with a plethora of varieties which you can buy by the farm name or by the artisan's name who made it. During lockdown I have discovered a wonderful cheesemonger from Bovey Tracey in Devon who is happy to deliver the most fantastic range of artisan cheeses to my door.
So, to a West Countryman like myself, just pass the Cheddar (Alvis Farm for example) and some Bath Oliver biscuits and I am happy.
I had an uncle who was a catering academic, who once told me that in time cabbage would prove to be one of the most expensive of vegetables because it cannot successfully be frozen or canned. It is fresh although not native. Well, wild coastal cabbage is native, as I know from my own stretch of beach, but that is not the type we eat today which was developed, unsurprisingly in The Netherlands and introduced here at the end of the 16th century, probably by a landowner in Dorset. But there are references to cabbage back in the 14th century, and this is likely to relate to wild cabbage. The difference between the two types being that the cabbage we enjoy today is 'round-headed' rather than small leaved. A variant of wild cabbage, found in The Channel Islands, is known as Jersey Cabbage. This cabbage's stalks can grow upwards of 9 foot in height with the leaves running down the stem. In Jersey they train the tops over and make Jersey Cabbage Walking Sticks.
Finally, an old recipe from Dorothy Hartley's classic 'Food in England', viz. Cabbage in Milk (a snack).
Method: Cook the cabbage in a cupful of milk. When cooked drain off the excess milk, mix with an egg, to make a 'Savoury custard gravy' and pour it over the cabbage. Serve with hot buttered toast. Has anyone ever made or eaten this?
VOMITORIUM (Latin). It used to be said that the Roman wealthy were such gluttons that next to their dining rooms they had a room where they could go to be sick - the vomitorium - before returning to the table to begin all over again. Sadly, perhaps, this pure myth. There were no such rooms but Roman gluttony there certainly was. Roast dormouse, anyone?
In fact the whole nonsense was a misunderstanding. The Romans used the latin word in the plural - VOMITORA. Vomitoria was the name given in the 5th century AD by Macrobius to describe the many exits below the tiered seating in an amphitheatre or stadium. They were a means of getting the crowds out quickly. Think the new Wembley Stadium. Following Bristol City, when we have ever reached Wembley, the name often seems doubly appropriate!!