Friday, June 18, 2010

Celt's Garden - Cheese and the Tax Man

It's all about the cheese. French cheese is a story of cookery and resource depletion. Cheese preserves milk, an otherwise fragile commodity. Cows, goats and sheep can make milk from pasture land that may be too steep, rocky or poor for grains or row crops. Cheese can be compactly transported. A gallon of milk makes 8-16 ounces of cheese, so the volume goes down and the shelf life goes up. Cheese has terroir, the flavors of origin. What the animals eat, the breed, the time of year and the cheese making methods, all contribute to unique cheese types. Every valley, every hamlet, almost every farmhouse, can have its specialty. What's not to like?

Best of all, cheese can be sold in towns and cities for cash. In cash poor rural France, turning poor soil on rocky slopes into cash by way of cheese is a centuries old survival strategy. For centuries, very little cash circulated outside the cities. Even rents were often partially or fully paid in wheat, sheep and wine. Taxes have ever been paid in cash.
In the 18th century, France was the western hemisphere's great maritime power. Three long lived kings in the 17th and 18th centuries (Louie, Louie, Louie, otherwise known as Louis 14th, 15th and 16th) paid for their wars by devaluing the currency. The way it worked was to issue currency with a higher and higher proportion of base metal but the same face value.

French maritime power was based on great wooden warships. Each warship took 1000 acres of old growth oak forest. Once the oak forest was logged off, the soil underneath was often too steep, poor and rocky for farming. With France well into resource depletion by the beginning of the 18th century, a new source of old growth timber was needed. It came in the form of the Mississippi Territory, a wide strip from what is now the Canadian border to New Orleans.
In the early 18th century, France had a liquidity crisis. This a common problem in advanced economies, where there are goods and services to trade a plenty but no one wants to part with cash to pay for them, in this case very likely due to the high probability of being repaid in debased metal. Louie's financial advisor, John Law, solved the problem by issuing paper notes against the money in the king's treasury. That did the trick: the increase in the money supply got the economy moving and pretty soon commerce was back on track. Louie like the idea so much that he just kept printing money, until the treasury was leveraged many times over.
Since the value of the total goods and services produced by the economy of the world's greatest maritime power hadn't changed much, all that cash in circulation had to go somewhere.

The problem with developing the Mississippi Territory for its genuine wealth in timber and other resources was that it was a decades long project and hugely expensive. The territory was largely unmapped. It was inhabited by people justifiably unhappy with recent events. It was only accessible by water, because the population collapse of the First Nations following the epidemics of European diseases in the 16th century had left the forest depleted of its keystone species. Grassland turned to shrub land, shrub lands turned to impenetrable young forest. Without people to set fires, old growth forests were overrun by under story shrubs and the trails vanished. So, the Mississippi project was conceived as a joint stock company. Buying shares was marketed as a patriotic duty. It might have worked, in the same way that people buy college bonds for infants, except that it came right as Louie was running the printing presses overtime.

The resulting bubble collapsed in 1820 and bankrupted the middle class. John Law took the fall and Louie carried on as before. By the middle of the century, France and England were deep into Peak Trees and still borrowing to finance their wars, mostly with each other. The money had to come from somewhere. England took it out of the colonies. France took it out of the citizens. The elites in both countries voted themselves tax exemption after tax exemption, until the greatest landowners paid almost nothing. England's colonies got restive from being sucked dry by the mother country and turned to Louie to finance a revolution. Which Louie, eye ever on the trees of the new world, did, reducing the next generation of middle class to penury and the peasants to starvation. We know how well that turned out.

If any of this sounds familiar, we will just move on to the cheese. Cows have to give birth in order to give milk. Only half the offspring are potential future dairy cows. Some of the males were castrated and used as oxen and perhaps 1% of them for breeding. That still leaves a lot of veal calves. The roots of haute cuisine reach back to Louie's cooks. Not coincidentally, just about everything in haute cuisine starts with veal stock.

The Mississippi territory changed hands several times and was finally sold to the U.S. as the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. The peasants grazed sheep on the plateaus once occupied by the old growth oak forests of central France. Some of the forests came back as secondary growth, mostly from being ignored in the commotion. Modern farmers hunt for truffles (also a declining resource) in the oak forests and fatten feral pigs on the mast, the calorie rich acorn litter. The rural economy is still cash poor and partially informal. Cheese is still the cash cow for many farmers, although European Union rules are making it difficult for farmstead cheeses to be sold legally.

Yogurt Cheese:
The easiest soft cheese is just made with yogurt, plain or any flavor and a jelly bag or quadruple layer of cheese cloth. Set the cheese cloth in a colander in the sink. Put the yogurt in the cheese cloth, tie up the top and suspend it until the whey drains out. The resulting cream cheese is quite nice. Yogurt can also be baked in a 300 oven to make a crumbly, dry cheese.

Cheese resources:
Cheese Supply ( Our local Bellingham source, less product range than the larger companies.
New England Cheesemaking Supply Company ( Books, kits, ingredients.
Leeners ( Pure cultures and supplies for all kinds of fermented foods.

More on the events mentioned above:
Charles Mackay, Extrordinary Popular delusions and the Madness of Crowds
David Hackett Fischer, The Great Wave

Previously posted by Celt M. Schira at on April 23, 2010. For recent posts, see

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