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.
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.
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.
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.
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