During our recent trip to Montana Kathleen and I took the opportunity to sample some of the local cuisine and brews. As always, most of it was okay, some of it was bleh, and some of it was fantastic. That’s life, right?
I think it was in the context of sampling some beer that we got on the topic of cheesemaking. Evie was coloring nearby as we talked, which also influenced the course of our conversation.
As you may or may not know, Kathleen’s family is Swiss. That is, dairy and cheesemaking run deep in her family history. There are pictures of her ancestors only a couple of generations back carrying giant copper cheesemaking kettles in parades in full Swiss garb. Partially because of this history, and partly out of curiosity, I recently listened to an Audible book called “Switzerland: A Village History.” The author traces the history of one village in Switzerland, his home village, through almost a thousand years of Swiss history, with the goal of providing a window into Swiss culture as a whole. How well he does showing that Chateau D’oex is representative of Switzerland as a whole is up for debate, but the book was enjoyable, if somewhat overtly politicized at the end.
At any rate, the most memorable part of the book for me was his description of the daily life of the village in the Middle Ages, starting with the advent of cheesemaking as the primary source of income for the village and the country (it is somewhat anachronistic to call Switzerland a “country” at this point, but we’ll let that slide for now).
All the village cows belonged to the village herd and pastured on the village common land. In the spring they would be herded up to the alpine meadows in a grand parade with bells, ribbons, music, dancing, feasting, etc. Each cow would be milked, and their output would be carefully weighed and computed as a percentage of the total output of the herd.
Then the village boys and young men would essentially live on the mountainside all summer, tending the cows. They would move them from pasture to pasture, milking each one every morning and every night while the cheesemaker and his apprentices would follow the herd with their buckets, bowls and cauldrons in tow. All summer long they would make cheese, either out on the meadow or in special cheese making huts.
The cheesemaker was arguably the most important man in the village. He was a man who had spent decades of his life perfecting his craft. He had to judge the quality of the milk by sight, taste and smell, check temperature and consistency by feel, know exactly how long to simmer the milk at exactly what temperature, without the benefit of a thermometer or a timepiece. He had to know the right time to harvest the rennet and add it, how to form the cheese, age the cheese, cure the cheese. Every grade-A cheese he turned out was money in the village pockets (individual families were paid a percentage of overall profits based on the percentage their cow or cows had produced on the first day of pasture. See above.) Every lesser grade cheese he produced was money lost.
You had better believe he kept a close eye on his apprentices. He taught them his trade, but he also severely limited their ability to cause disaster. The apprentice cheese boys probably started out splitting wood, trimming fires (itself a delicate task when the temperature must be maintained within a few degrees without a thermostat), scouring kettles. Then perhaps they moved up to straining the milk, skimming the milk, cutting the rennet. They were probably not allowed to start mixing ingredients or stirring or actually doing anything that could potentially ruin a cheese until they were in their mid to late teens and had demonstrated the maturity and ability to attend necessary to keep from burning the cheeses. They were probably started off on the smaller, inferior cheeses made from second or third skimming, intended for local consumption by the cowherds themselves. Only gradually would they be allowed to move up to higher quality milk and higher quality cheeses. When a man produced his first grade-A cheese deemed by his masters as being worthy of being shipped to market, it was the culmination of decades of training.
In a word, the cheese masters most likely trained their apprentices in a manner similar to the guild apprenticeships of medieval Europe (admirably treated with a lively gusto in Peter Ackroyd’s “Life of Thomas More” and to a lesser extent in his magnificent “History of England” see especially Volume II. The guilds receive a much more nostalgic and rosy treatment in Anthony Esolen’s “Piolitically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization). Our conversation meandered to the guilds and their role in shaping and teaching their various arts. Nowadays when we use the word “art” we instinctively think of something that is essentially extra. An art is something that is nice, like singing, painting, drawing, acting, poetry, fiction, etc. The connotation is of something that doesn’t really matter. Of course we all agree that art is good, and great to have around, and what would our culture be without art, etc. We pay our “artists” obscene amounts of money to sing and dance and act for us, but in the final analysis, we think of art as not real work. We have separate categories for real work (useful, somewhat coercive, reliably earns a wage or delivers a paycheck, somehow necessary to the sustainment of life as we know it) and art (frivolous, done solely by and for enjoyment, does not reliably earn a living except for a tiny minority, the world would go chugging on quite well without it.)
The ancient’s were not so split in their thinking. Read any of the dialogues of Plato and you are guaranteed to hear him blathering on about the “art” of the farmer, or of the physician, or of the gymnastic instructor, and comparing it to the “art” of the rhetorician or politician. More recently, look at the cheesemaker, and all of his guild master colleagues in all the various guilds. This was real art. This was art that really mattered. It really mattered because the village depended on it for their livelihood, but also because it became a matter of pride for a man to become a master cheesemaker. The day he stood before his masters, and they judged his work worthy, and recognized him as a master and a peer, was a great day in the life of a man. It was the day he took his place in the community, in many ways, it was the day he became a man.
Before he got to that point he was taught, trained and criticized. His every mistake was pointed out and corrected, sometimes harshly. His masters treated him as if the art really mattered, and he had better be willing to sacrifice his own ego and his own ideas for the sake of that art.
Contrast that with our attitude toward the teaching of art. When the school budget has to be balanced, what is the first thing to go? The arts. When we send our kids to college what degrees do we tell them to avoid? Arts. Art is an extra, an elective, and most tellingly, it is a class that no one can fail. All you have to do is “do your best” and express yourself. In a word, we treat art as something that doesn’t really matter. With the things that really do matter we don’t say “just do your best.”
We fire people who don’t enhance productivity, regardless of whether or not they do their best. No one gets through medical school on the basis of doing their best or expressing themselves. They had better be expressing the views of the CDC, the AMA, the ACOG, the APA, etc. They had better be meeting the standard.
The old masters treated their art as if it really mattered.* They expected discipline, and sacrifice, and respect for the art. You had to show that you had mastered the art that was given you before you were deemed to have anything worth expressing. Did it crush spirits? Probably not as often as we might think. Spirits are greatly determined by expectations, and if you were a boy with no expectation except being an apprentice and learning an art and eventually becoming a master, you probably adapted to it just fine.
I would not say that theirs was a superior way of teaching. But I do wonder what would happen to our “art,” which, lets face it, is mostly very bad, if we started treating our chosen art like a master cheesemaker, with an entire village’s livelihood simmering in his kettle.
*An argument could be made that the attitude toward the art was not the primary difference, but a result of the primary difference between their art and hours. The primary difference might well have been the theological outlook. Was it Dorothy Sayers who said that bad theology always leads to bad art?