Say – horse – cheese

By Laurence Totelin

Last time I blogged for the Recipes Project, I talked about mares. I’d like today to return to mares, their milk and the cheese made with it.

Gold Scythian belt buckle with horse. Seventh century BCE. Source: Wikipedia
Gold Scythian belt buckle. Seventh century BCE. Source: Wikipedia.

These were not delicacies that the Greeks and Romans themselves enjoyed. Instead, they had observed their consumption among the Scythians, a series of tribes, often nomadic, inhabiting large expanses of Eurasian steppes in antiquity. The Scythians, and their taste for mare’s milk and cheese, were a topic of fascination among the classical Greek authors. The historian Herodotus devotes a long passage to the way in which the Scythians milked their mares: they used slaves they had blinded for that purpose. One slave blew into the mare’s vulva with a bone tube, while another milked the mare (Histories 4.2). This is a well-known and much discussed passage among ancient historians. Enough to state here that much appears to have been lost in translation between the Scythians and Herodotus’ source! The Greeks did not drink milk themselves on a regular basis (although they used it in medical context), and established a linked between ‘otherness’ or ‘barbarism’ and milk drinking.

What will retain me today is the use of the mare’s cheese recipe in a physiological analogy. The author of the Hippocratic treatise On Generation, On the Nature of the Child and Diseases IV (which dates to the end of the fifth century BCE or the beginning of the fourth) was very fond of analogies, some of which are rather wacky. In the passage that concerns me, he compares the physiological process whereby a bad humour is heated and agitated in the human body to the making of mare’s cheese:

If the man is not purged, as the humour is stirred, there is produced an amount that is excessive. This is similar to what the Scythians make with mare’s milk. For they pour the milk into wooden bowls and shake it. As it is stirred, it foams up and separates. The fatty part, which they call butter, as it is light rises to the surface; the heavy and thick portion sinks to the bottom; they separate it and dry it. When it has become firm and dry, they call it ‘hippakē’. The whey of the milk is in the middle. Similarly in the case of man: when all the humour in his body is stirred, all the humours are separated by the principles I have mentioned: the bile rises to the top, as it is lightest; then comes the blood; third the phlegm; and the water, as it is the heaviest of the humours. (Diseases 4.51, 7.584 Littré)

Milk curdling: butter at the top, whey, solids at the bottom. Source: MARTYN F. CHILLMAID/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY
Milk curdling: butter at the top, whey, solids at the bottom. Image Credit: MARTYN F. CHILLMAID/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY

This is a rich and surprising passage. It mentions four humours, but those are not the four humours we all know (bile, phlegm, blood and black bile). Instead, we find bile, blood, phlegm and water. It is relatively little known that there is only one text in the Hippocratic Corpus that mentions the four humours that would become, under the influence of Galen, canonical: Nature of Man. The number and name of humours varies from one Hippocratic treatise to the next. Our author has a predilection for his ‘water’, the heaviest of all his humours, which he compares to the heavy portion to the Scythian milk. One wonders why this Greek author has chosen a Scythian process as a comparing point. The Greeks did make cheese, but their cheese was of the soft type, kept in brine. They did not make butter and hard cheeses. They did not churn (shake) their milk. The recipe the author provide is reasonably clear, although I would personally find it difficult to make cheese by following it. Looking forward to my feta-based dinner now!

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