A Cheesy Christmas

Lady’s Bedstraw, Galium verum. © Karen Andrews

You are probably wondering what place cheese can possibly have in an Advent Botany blog? No, the cheese has nothing to do with the cheesy Christmas Cracker jokes. There is a genuine plant connection with cheese and a Medieval legend about the birth of Jesus.

Cheese Connection

Lady’s Bedstraw, Galium verum, was traditionally used in cheese-making. Its leaves and stems contain an enzyme that curdles milk. It was used instead of animal rennet. It also sweetened the milk and gave cheese its yellow colour. Traditional Cheddar and Double Gloucester cheeses were made in this way. Lady’s Bedstraw was replaced in the 18th century by another plant product: annatto. Annatto is the seed or extract from the South American Achiote tree or shrub, Bixa orellana. Annatto has, in turn, been partially replaced by industrially processed beta carotene.

Why bother colouring cheese at all? My trusty Oxford Companion to Food reveals that there is a difference in the colour of milk produced in summer and winter. When cows eat grass in summer their milk produces a natural buttery, yellow colour. When they eat fodder in winter, the necessary pigment is lacking. The addition of colouring helps ensure consistency between winter and summer. Colour variation also occurs naturally in cheese production between different regions. Annatto colours without adding any unwelcome flavour to the cheese.

Christmas Connection

Lady’s Bedstraw was commonly used for bedding in past times. It was chosen for its softness and pleasant smell. It is also thought to have kept fleas away. According to a Medieval tale, the Virgin Mary (Our Lady) gave birth to baby Jesus on a bed of Lady’s Bedstraw and Bracken. The Bracken refused to acknowledge Jesus and was consequently denied its flower. Lady’s Bedstraw flowers blossomed thereafter. Its flowers changed from white to a brilliant golden colour. Thus, the flower also gained an association with child birth and was valued for sedative properties.

The brilliant golden yellow flowers of Lady’s Bedstraw, Galium verum. © Karen Andrews

References and Further Reading

  • Davidson, Alan (2006): The Oxford Companion to Food. Second Edition. Edited by Tom Jaine. Oxford University Press.
  • Plantlife (?): Lady’s Bedstraw, Galium verum.
  • Toussaint-Samat, Maguelonne (1987): Histoire Naturelle & Morale de la Nourriture. Bordas Cultures. Paris. France.
  • Turf Online (2020): Lady’s Bedstraw (Galium verum). Turf Online Knowledge Base. Harrowden Turf Ltd.

Copyright Note

Karen does not seek or receive any commercial interest or advantage from this blog. She is not promoting any business venture. She simply loves to share fascinating facts about plants. These pages illustrate her love of plants, botany, biodiversity, gardens and creative expression. There is always so much to learn about plant diversity. This blog is designed as a showcase for photography, commentary on plants and wildlife, gardens and other places visited, horticulture and related topics. Viewpoints are her own, not those of her employer.

© Karen Andrews 2018 onwards. All rights reserved. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Karen Andrews and BotanyKaren.net with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. 

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