Essex St. Cheese Co.

December 28, 2011, 8:54 pm
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A regular report on geek cheese interests and the learnings by traveling cheesemonger Daphne Zepos.

Three Shepherds

From Homer’s Cyclops to John Muir to the Basques

Polyphemus the Cyclops is one of the unsavory characters that the great Odysseus (Ulysses) encounters on his long journey back home. Guess what? He is the first cheesemaker ever to be recorded.

Homer describes him going about his timeless chores, milking, and making cheese.

“…Back he came from pasture, late in the day, herding his flocks home, and lugging a huge load of good dry logs to fuel his fire at supper. He flung them down in the cave—a jolting crash— we scuttled in panic into the deepest dark recess. And next he drove his sleek flocks into the open vault, all he’d milk at least, but he left the males outside, rams and billy goats out in the high-walled yard. Then to close his door he hoisted overhead a tremendous, massive slab no twenty-two wagons, rugged and four-wheeled, could budge that boulder off the ground, I tell you, such an immense stone the monster wedged to block his cave! Then down he squatted to milk his sheep and bleating goats, each in order, and put a suckling underneath each dam. And half of the fresh white milk he curdled quickly, set it aside in wicker racks to press for cheese, the other half let stand in pails and buckets, ready at hand to wash his supper down. As soon as he’d briskly finished all his chores he lit his fire and spied us in the blaze and ‘Strangers!’ he thundered out, ‘now who are you?’”

Excerpted from The Odyssey by Homer, translated by Robert Fagles

In the summer of 1911, John Muir spent the summer taking care of a large flock of sheep up in the CA Sierras. He was ecstatic about the nature that surrounded him, not so enthusiastic about the sheep, and very funny when he turned his attention to the shepherd.

“Our shepherd is a queer character, and hard to place in this wilderness. His bed is a hollow made in red, dry-rot, punky dust beside a log which forms a portion of the south wall of the corral. Here he lies with his wonderful, everlasting clothing on, wrapped in a red blanket, breathing not only the dust of the decayed wood but also that of the corral, as if determined to take ammoniacal snuff all night after chewing tobacco all day. Following the sheep, he carries a heavy six-shooter swung from his belt on one side, and his luncheon on the other. The ancient cloth in which the meat, fresh from the frying-pan, is tied, serves as a filter through which the clear fat and gravy juices drip down on his hip and leg in clustering stalactites. This oleaginous formation is soon broken up, however, and diffused and rubbed evenly into his scanty apparel, by sitting down, rolling over, crossing his legs while resting on logs, etc., making shirt and trousers water-tight and shiny.”

“His trousers in particular have become so adhesive with the mixed fat and resin, that pine-needles, thin flakes and fibres of bark, hair, mica-scales, and minute grains of quartz, hornblende, etc., feathers, seed, wings, moth and butterfly wings, legs and antennae of innumerable insects, or even whole insects such as the small beetles, moths, and mosquitoes, with flower-petals, pollen dust, and indeed bits of all plants, animals, and minerals of the region, adhere to them, and are safely imbedded, so that, though far from being a naturalist, he collects fragmentary specimens of everything, and becomes richer than he knows. His specimens are kept passably fresh too by the purity of the air and the resiny bituminous beds into which they are pressed. Man is a microcosm; at least our shepherd is, or rather his trousers. These precious overalls are never taken off, and nobody knows how old they are, though one may guess by their thickness and concentric structure. Instead of wearing thin they wear thick, and in their stratification have no small geological significance.?

Excerpted from My First Summer in the Sierra by John Muir

Dr. Sandra Ott is Associate Professor and Co-Director of the Center for Basque Studies at the University of Nevada, Reno. Trained as a social anthropologist, Dr. Ott began her research on the Basques of southwestern France in 1976, and has returned every year to the same mountain community—known as Santazi—ever since. She wrote the fascinating book, The Circle of Mountains: A Basque Shepherding Community. The following is an excerpt of a conversation between her and Pierre Gaillard, a Basque shepherd in the French Pyrenees.

“A few years ago, when I took Pierre to a farm in the high Pyrenees to buy a ram, he and I had a rare chance to talk in private. As I drove down the mountainside, the sun rose and with a clear blue sky we could see still snow-capped peaks in the distance. It was April, and the trees had tiny buds. ‘I love this time of year,’ Pierre remarked as he looked out the window, ‘because the trees are getting dressed.’

“He was excited to see mountains that he’d never seen before. He had never traveled that far to the east of his natal community. And then he said, ‘You know, Sandy, I have known you for most of life. And I have always tried hard to understand what you do…your love of words and books, the years you’ve spent at universities….And I have to confess that I still don’t understand.’ Pierre gestured toward the snow-capped mountains and bright green fields. ‘This,’ he exclaimed, ‘is my university. These mountains, the earth, my animals…they are my professors and have taught me everything I know.'”


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