23

I've come across many mentions of cheese when talking about rations for soldiers and those who would be hiking for long stretches of time. What kind of cheese would we be talking about? I'm mainly interested in either the Romans or Medieval Europe.

When I think of hard cheeses, they are stored in the fridge and still spoil after some time. Did they have extra small loafs of cheese which would last longer?

  • 4
    This question would benefit from sources. "I've come across many mentions of cheese. . . " Were these credible sources? How long was the cheese stored? Did they mention cutting off the spoiled bits? – Mark C. Wallace Jul 17 '17 at 11:00
  • 9
    Cheese-making was a preservative, so longevity was a given. Climate had much impact - the hotter it gets, the more salty the cheese. The right kind of cheese can last for many months just stored up in the basement, especially during winter (which was the main need for preserving food - little food in winter). Even for an army on the march, you could expect the cheese to last for a month or two, more than enough for a typical medieval expedition. Note that we're not talking about particularly good cheese - it was very salty and dry. Quality cheese was eaten fresh, even more so than today. – Luaan Jul 17 '17 at 12:44
  • 1
    During my hiking trips I take chunks of Swiss cheese (1lb). The cheese stays good without refrigeration for more than a week. I do keep it in plastic baggies but I am sure if it were made with the intention to last cheese could be stored for about a month. – Reed Jul 17 '17 at 13:21
  • 3
    Waxing also helps (wikipedia on Edam) – Chris H Jul 17 '17 at 13:22
  • 15
    Modern high quality parmesan cheese are stored in non-refrigerated rooms for around 2 to 3 years before they're cut up and sold to consumers. So that's already 2 to 3 years hard cheese can last outside of a fridge. After that, if stored properly and avoiding condensation (it is the film of water on the surface that spoils the cheese) parmesan can last a few more years at room temperature. – slebetman Jul 17 '17 at 15:22
28

First and foremost, for an army recommendations and even regulations would be always conditional on availability; if there was not enough cheese available or if cheese had gone bad then simply cheese would not be distributed. In other words, the fact that cheese was recommended does not mean that every time the soldiers had to do long marches they would have been supplied with it.

Second, I think you imagine a marching army that carries with itself all the supplies needed for the march/campaign. More often than not, the army would forage or resupply on the march, through the purchase of food (if in friendly terrain), the use of previously established supply depots1 and by simply plundering whatever they needed (if in enemy territory or if the locals were not willing to provide food)2.

An army trying to march with all of its supplies has lots of complications; not only you need a long supply train that you need to defend and that slows down the army, but you also need to feed the people and the animals of the supply train itself, thus putting an upper limit to its utility.

Obviously, since one of the main functions of these depots was to store foodstuff, they were designed in order to conserve it as best as possible. In "The Logistics of the Roman Army At War", by Jonathan Roth, it is stated (p.185):

The ancients had the technology to store grain for as long as ten years. The Romans understood that in order to preserve grain for the longest possible period, the temperature and moisture content of the grain had to be kept as low as possible

And, while cereals were the main aliment for the soldiers, such depots contained other items (p.187):

A granary or horreum did not only store grain: the low temperature and ventilation in granaries helped to preserve fresh and salted meat, cheese, lard, vegetables, olive oil and wine. Frontinus refers to the “food supplies” (alimenta) stored in the horrea of the Roman army after the battle of Teutoburgerwald in 9 A.D.230 Several horrea, such as those at Balbuildy and Ilkley in Britain, have revealed amphora fragments. The author of the African War refers to a camp storing, in addition to grain, wine, and oil, “other necessary items which had been gathered as provisions.”

Additionally, when available, carrying supplies by ship (either through the sea or through rivers) allowed them to be transported faster.

And let's not forget that it was not only the army that didn't have access to fridges. Conservation of the food was an important issue to everybody, so long lasting varieties would be preferred for storage. You would get to eat fresh cheese (or meat) only shortly after it was prepared; everything else would be elaborated/salted/smoked so it could last as long as possible.


1This option was more used by well organized states like the Roman Empire; medieval logistics were far more "medieval".

2In page 200 of Jonathan Roth's book, "The Logistics of the Roman Army At War", we find an upper bound for how far an army could go from its supply base:

In practice, the Romans did supply armies overland for well over 100 km. (60 miles)—and occasionally up to 320 km. (200 miles). There are a number of examples of this attested in the sources.

  • 1
    Footnote 2 mentions "the book", but no book has been referenced up to that point. Presumably you mean "The Logistics of the Roman Army At War", by Jonathan Roth, introduced two paragraphs later? – Thierry Jul 18 '17 at 9:55
  • In a way that is both useful and frightenning, Youtube has directed me to a video about cheesemaking in early 19th century (youtube.com/watch?v=4B6qYQbvJWY). Pay attention to the first part, in which cheese is explained as a way to store surplus milk production. – SJuan76 Jul 19 '17 at 8:04
12

...the first of these I filled with provisions—viz. bread, rice, three Dutch cheeses, five pieces of dried goat’s flesh (which we lived much upon), and a little remainder of European corn, which had been laid by for some fowls which we brought to sea with us, but the fowls were killed. There had been some barley and wheat together; but, to my great disappointment, I found afterwards that the rats had eaten or spoiled it all. As for liquors, I found several, cases of bottles belonging to our skipper, in which were some cordial waters; and, in all, about five or six gallons of rack.

(Robinson Crusoe)

They allowed the salty young cheese or any of the hard sorts get dry. Before 20th cent no plastic bags existed, and to keep it moist for long time specially would be considered as a crazy idea. So, they carried with themselves very-very dry and hard cheese. These cheaper young sorts are not fat. And it is fat that makes the dry cheese go spoiled so fast.

Notice also, that people BC did not travel really for long without any access to the food. The fast march when they couldn't stop to buy or rob anything could take days, but not months. The furthest non-supply travels were these in desert. And when everything was OK, it took maximally several days. Notice, that armies did not cross Sahara, and small troops can use oasis's sources. And when an army had to cross a desert, then problems began, as for Alexander before and after India.

As for Medieval times, Europeans did travel even less these times. Mongols killed antelopes or horses and put meat under the saddle - to be by spiced by horse sweat. Had they invented the method? I don't know.

I don't know , when the Medieval times end for you, but in 15-18 cent they traveled far by ships. And I don't remember any mention of cheese as a common mariner's food. For officers only. Salty dried meat/fish and dried bread or biscuits, left for some time or beaten against the table to make the worms crawl or fall out - that was the food. For officers, too. What is funny, according to the contemporary dietology, they should eat their bisquits together with insects in them :-)

  • 6
    I was struck by a scene in a movie set aboard a Brit naval vessel in the early 1800s or late 1700s where the men complain about water and an officer downs a glass in front of them without indication of disgust. People dealt with things that would horrify a modern person; we need to appreciate how good we have it now in the USA/developed world and work hard not to lose it. – Jeff Jul 17 '17 at 19:12
  • 1
    @Jeff Great point. A lot of what we consider simple seasonings were originally developed to either help preserve food, or to mask the taste of food that was going bad. Back in the day, it took months to grow food, hours to prepare it, and minutes to consume it. Today, we've lost sight of that. Everything we eat is instantly available. If we had to actually put in all the work it takes to produce food, we wouldn't throw it away like we do. – barbecue Jul 17 '17 at 21:10
  • 1
    @barbecue: the science fiction story made into a movie which involves wells chasing jack the ripper into 1970s san francisco has him eating a big mac and being astounded at how good it is -- i think this might be true: that everyday food we have is superior to almost anything available in the 19th century because of both improved refrigeration and breeding of food animals and fruit. i understand that a modern banana, for example, is way better than the fruit a century ago. – Jeff Jul 17 '17 at 21:28
  • 1
    " People in 19Cent lived in village and often ate FRESH food. It is much better that anything you can get at the shop." No, it's not. Do you think refrigeration is just something invented for the convenience of shop-keepers? – Rob Crawford Jul 18 '17 at 13:45
  • 1
    @RobCrawford Have I said they ALWAYS ate fresh food? Of course, only immediately after picking or catching. But we in cities never eat really fresh food. Yes, what we eat is never rotten. But it is never fresh, too. – Gangnus Jul 19 '17 at 6:26
8

Dry hard cheeses like parmesan generally do not go bad quickly. As the FDA puts it *"As a general rule, hard cheeses such as cheddar, processed cheeses (American), and both block and grated Parmesan do not require refrigeration for safety..." Such cheeses are in fact typically aged in warm environments for months or (in the case of really fancy cheese) years. Mold can also be scraped off of the cheese, leaving the rest edible. Certain types of mold are simply left in the cheese to add flavor even today. The cheese would likely have been stored in large blocks, slowing spoilage greatly and of course as others have said, probably wouldnt have been carried around in a backpack for months at a time.

*https://usdasearch.usda.gov/search?utf8=%E2%9C%93&affiliate=fsis&query=cheese&commit.x=0&commit.y=0&commit=Search

  • 3
    Note also the Dutch habit of encasing balls of cheese in wax as a means of preservation: traditionally beige wax for Gouda and red for Edam. – Pieter Geerkens Jul 17 '17 at 22:56
  • @PieterGeerkens Thats a great addition, I never knew that was the reason for the traditional wax wrapping! – kingfrito_5005 Jul 18 '17 at 14:02
  • And surely, as while wax covering the wax was hot, the spores on the cover mostly were destroyed. – Gangnus Aug 16 '17 at 8:31
  • But notice, please, that these cheeses were expensive and for officers only. Robinson Crusoe found only three cheeses on the whole ship. – Gangnus Aug 16 '17 at 8:37
4

Firstly, I would guess cheese is a food made to last but the more important point is that modern ideas of what is spoiled and what is acceptable to eat are probably quite different than the way people felt about it 100 years ago. People did not have effective refrigerators and food was carried by slower transportation. So things like brown spots on bananas were no big deal and actually spoiled parts of a fruit (or cheese) that you could not or would not want to eat were simply cut out. Even moguls like Rockefeller probably found acceptable things that a modern person (in the USA, anyway) would toss.

  • 4
    Sources would improve this answer. – Mark C. Wallace Jul 17 '17 at 9:45
  • 1
    @MarkC.Wallace: I am not sure where I can find sources on what people considered acceptable to eat or not 100 years ago but it is well known that transportation was slower and refrigeration often consisted of an ice box which is less effective than a modern fridge. – Jeff Jul 17 '17 at 9:54
  • 3
    The author of the post is right. I have not read about 19th century on that subject, but the time till 1800 is fully covered by "Civilisation matérielle, économie et capitalisme, XVe-XVIIIe siècle" of Fernand Braudel. The time before XV cent is covered, too, only not so thoroughly. – Gangnus Jul 17 '17 at 10:06
  • 4
    Brown spots on bananas are still not a big deal to me. Neither is a moldy spot on cheese. You just cut it off and eat the rest. About the only thing it's unsafe to do that with is bread mold, because it requires an expert to tell whether bread mold is harmless or harmful, and it's just not worth it to take the chance. (Plenty of interesting stories in history about bread mold causing disease and/or hysteria, by the way.) – Cody Gray Jul 17 '17 at 12:47
  • 2

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.