In the summer of 1987, Paddy Coughlan and Dan O’Conner got to work digging peat on a farm near Glenahilty in Ireland’s Tipperary County and found a little more than they expected. The two men worked together to extract their mysterious find, which turned out to be a 100-pound block of 1,400-year-old cheese.
An exciting find to be sure, especially if you happen to have a box of crackers handy, but Coughlan and O’Connor didn’t. They contacted archaeologist Tony Candon, who, though pretty psyched about the find, was also fresh out of crackers. He did, however, identify the find as cheese (or possibly butter) and declared it quite likely edible, preserved as it was by the cool, acidic, and anaerobic conditions of the bog.
For nearly 27 years, it was a really impressive discovery. Then in February of 2014, archaeologists published the findings from the excavation of a 17th-century B.C. cemetery in the Taklamakan Desert in China’s Xinjiang region. What they found was about 200 well-preserved mummies, each with a little chunk of 3,600-year-old yellow cheese hanging around its neck. Though there’s secondary evidence that cheese has been around some parts of the world for more than 7000 years, this is the oldest actual cheese that’s ever turned up.
I mention this, not because I am particularly knowledgeable about cheese (I’m certainly not), but because today happens to be National Moldy Cheese Day. As far as I know Hallmark hasn’t produced a card for this one yet and you might be hard pressed to find it printed on a wall calendar, but nevertheless today is, without question, the day when we’re all supposed to take a moment to appreciate moldy cheese.
Because this is sort of a history blog, I scoured Wikipedia for at least a couple of minutes to see if I could discover the origin of the strange holiday. I failed. But I think given the importance our ancestors placed on cheese (a convenient snack for the deceased or a 100-pound treasure to be buried in in the back yard for safe keeping), we can assume that Moldy Cheese Day has been around for a while, just like the forgotten slice of American sizzling on the middle school blacktop or that block of Swiss growing fuzzy in the back of your refrigerator.
And there’s no question that there are folks among us today who are crazy about cheese. Foodies rave about various stinky cheeses with rinds washed in this or that briny solution. They speak of aging processes and of textures and flavors described as earthy or meaty. There are die-hard cheese eaters out there who can’t wait to devour the smelliest cheeses they can find, not even shying away when the odor is described as similar to that of sweaty feet.
My guess is that Helen Lucy Burke is one of these die-hard cheese fanatics (not to be confused with the Green Bay Packers cheese-head fanatics, who are even more peculiar). Ms. Burke threw caution to the wind and sampled the 1,400-year-old bog cheese where it’s now kept at the Roscrea Heritage Centre in Tipperary. She described the flavor as unpleasant, though not quite revolting, similar to a dried Wensleydale cheese, which I’m pretty sure I’m never going to eat.
But perhaps you are braver than I am. If you are, you can celebrate Moldy Cheese Day by branching out and trying something new, or, if you want, rumor has it you can cut the fuzzy parts off that lump of Swiss and eat it without worry.
Personally, I think I might celebrate by cleaning out my fridge.