CURDS. Curds are a by-product of milk, and in the traditional agrarian societies of Europe and America, indeed in most parts of the world, the processing of milk belonged to the woman's sphere. In many farmhouses, there was a cold room or a freestanding springhouse nearby known as the dairy, and like the kitchen, this was the domain of the wife and her daughters. For this reason, much information about curds and curd-making can be found in cookery books and in books on household management.
Curds may be best described as condensed milk fat that has not yet aged into cheese, although it is also fairly common to refer to unpressed curds as "fresh" cheese—fresh in the sense of raw or unprocessed. The most popular form of curds consumed in the United States is cottage cheese, which is fresh curds combined with cream, sour cream, or milk. Low-fat cottage cheese is generally considered a health food and therefore plays an important role in many types of weight-loss diets. Greek feta cheese is essentially fresh salted curds preserved in whey, the watery liquid that comes with every jar or package of feta.
The word "curd" evolved from Middle English crouden, a verb meaning 'to press or push hard in a downward direction'. This association may derive from the fact that curds were normally poured into a cloth bag and pressed dry of the whey, or hung from a hook and allowed to drip over a basin, hence the old term "hung cheese." In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, curds were also pressed into molds made of ceramic or tin and sold in farm markets in a wide variety of shapes, usually hearts of various sizes.
From crouden also comes the Southern term "crowder," any sort of cowpea that was cracked (pounded) and cooked for porridge. A crowder pea was a porridge pea, and in the Scotch-Irish cookery of Appalachia, this porridge might also contain whey or curds, or even both. In rural Scotland, curdy-butter or cruddy-butter was a spread for oat cake made by mashing together fresh curds and salted butter. In Appalachia, it was eaten on johnny cake. It goes without saying that curds and whey have been dietary staples for thousands of years in every household where milk was readily available.
In composition, curds are the fatty part of milk that has become solid. When milk undergoes acidification, it sours. This souring process is induced by lactic acid bacteria streptococci and lactobacilli. They feed on milk sugars (lactose) and change it to acid. When this happens slowly at room temperature, the result is clabber or "thick milk," as it was often called in Colonial America. Clabber is milk that has attained a consistency resembling junket, and in this form, it was an important ingredient in traditional cookery. It was also eaten by itself as a breakfast and supper food, often mixed with fresh fruit (during the summer). German Quark is very similar to clabber in composition and is eaten like yogurt in many parts of Central Europe. Clabber is no longer eaten in the United States because of regulations requiring the pasteurization of milk. Pasteurized milk will not clabber because the bacteria have been killed during the heating process.
However, when the souring process of raw milk is speeded up, the acid causes the fatty solids in milk to migrate and stick together, thus forming curds (called protein clump among cheesemakers) and watery whey. In traditional cookery, whey was considered a useful food in its own right, mainly because it was easy to digest. It was therefore employed in foods prepared for children, the elderly, or the sick. In regions where dairy culture predominated, whey was available in such abundance that it was often fed to livestock, especially pigs. Whey was also used in hearth cookery for making griddle cakes, muffins, and cornbread, since the acid would react with such old-time leavening agents as Hirschhorn salts, saleratus, and pearlash. Cow's milk yields the largest amount of whey since it is about 85 percent water.
Curd formation could also be hastened by a process known as renneting. This was based on an enzyme called rennin, which is found in the stomach lining of ruminant animals. The rennet preferred by most cheesemakers generally came from the stomach of a young animal, such as a calf for cow's cheese, kid for goat cheese, or lamb for sheep's cheese. The use of animal rennets in cheesemaking is the reason many vegetarians will not eat cheese—the young animal of course must be killed in order to obtain the rennet. Tofu, a curd made from soybeans, has been eaten in Asia as a milk curd substitute for over a thousand years. However, there is also a long history of rennets obtained from plants, and cheeses made with them are acceptable to those vegetarians who consume dairy products.
One of the earliest known plants employed as a renneting agent was the wild artichoke of the eastern Mediterranean and North Africa. It is believed that the Phoenicians discovered this process and disseminated the technology, since the earliest cultivation of artichokes (and cardoons) is associated with Phoenician colonies. These plants may have been first brought under cultivation expressly for their renneting qualities, only later employed in cookery. In any case, it was the "choke" or flower head that was heated in the milk in order to make it curdle. These plants flower in late spring when milk production is at its peak, especially among goats.
Other renneting plants from this same region were milk thistle (Silybum marianum ) and blessed thistle (Cnicus benedictus ), which were also eaten as spring greens (the leaves were tied up and blanched under mounds of soil). In northern Europe, the flower heads of several species of native thistles were used in the same manner, as well as the old Celtic rennet plant, Lady's Bedstraw (Galium verum ). In the case of Lady's Bedstraw, it is the golden yellow root that is used to curdle milk. In the Celtic areas of Spain and Gaul, this plant, like milk thistle and blessed thistle, was under the protection of the fertility goddess Brigantia, who presided over matters dealing with the dairy and whose name survives in many place names where her cult was celebrated annually at Imbolc (February 1).
Brigantia's offices were subsumed by the early Church and assigned, in Ireland at least, to St. Bridget (a goddess transformed into a saint) as well as to Maria Lactans, the Virgin Mary depicted with streams of milk flowing from her breasts. It was Maria Lactans to whom village women prayed not only to ensure their own lactation after childbirth, but also to ensure the proper curdling of milk during cheesemaking.
See also Cattle; Cheese; Dairy Products; Goat, Lactation; Vegetarianism.
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Bray, D. A. "The Image of Saint Brigit in the Early Irish Church." Études celtiques 24 (1987): 209–215.
Crumbine, Samuel J., and James A. Tobey. The Most Nearly Perfect Food: The Story of Milk. Baltimore: Williams and Wilkins, 1930.
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Ottenjann, Helmut, and Karl-Heinz Ziessow. Die Milch: Geschichte und Zukunft eines Lebensmittels [Milk: the history and future of a food ]. Cloppenburg, Germany: Museumsdorf Cloppenburg, 1996.
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William Woys Weaver
Goats lactate seasonally and while they produce less milk than cows, their milk is richer in vitamins and minerals. The ancient Greeks always recommended goat milk for babies because they observed that it was easier to digest. This is due to the fact that a high proportion of small-and medium-chain fatty acids are more easily absorbed into the body. Likewise, goat curds are much easier to digest than curds from cow milk. Goat milk is naturally homogenized because it lacks a protein called agglutinin; thus the fats in the milk remain dispersed. This, plus the lower casein proteins in goat milk, results in smaller curds, which is why fresh goat cheese has such a dense paste-like texture. The halloumi cheese of Cyprus is so dense that it can be grilled without melting or falling apart. It is made from goat curds that are pressed together with mint, then heated in salted whey.
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