Imperial Russia The Case of the Dead Cheese Master

The Case of the Dead Cheese Master, Part II: A Taste for Cheese

Why was a Swiss cheese-master (or perhaps a Swiss-cheese master) working for the administration of Gatchina in 1799? There are (at least) two ways of answering this question. The first has to do with the development of a taste for cheese—and by this I mean a taste for aged cheese, not for soft fresh cheese—among Russia’s elite during the eighteenth century, and a corresponding concern with the Empire’s finances.

While Russia had a long tradition of milk products and soft cheeses, cured cheeses came into fashion during the eighteenth century as imported luxury goods. Peter the Great supposedly preferred cheese to sweets as a dessert (and loved Limburger above all others); by the start of the nineteenth century travelers and others described imported cheeses as common parts of the culinary world of Russia’s nobility.  So wrote Theodore Faber as he described St. Petersburg: “The cheese of Parma is an indispensable need in all kitchens; one never serves the Macaroni of Italy without adding in its perfume.  Nothing is more common than that article.  A housewife speaks of her supply of Parmesan, like in Germany one would speak of the supply of onions or of parsley.  The cheeses of England, of Holland, of Switzerland, are the ordinary dessert.” [1. Bagatelles.  Promenades d’un désœuvré dans la ville de St.-Pétersbourg, vol. 1 (St.-Pétersbourg: L’imprimerie de Pluchart et cie., 1811), 181-2.]

At least among the elite, this might not have been much of an exaggeration. Household records from noble families of the time suggest that they regularly spent significant sums on imported cheese. A register from the Vorontsov family lists a round of Parmesan, a tin of Stilton, a round of Swiss cheese, and 20 funts (more than 8 kilograms!) of “English Chester” cheese in the household stores. [1. RGADA f. 1261, op. 2, d. 668, l. 14 (it also listed 200 bottles of olive oil, 6 bottles of tarragon vinegar, 20 funts of mustard powder, and 5 poods of coffee)] They also suggest something else—that a housewife was less likely to speak of her supply of Parmesan than her husband might have been. Parmesan might be used in cooking, but the other cheeses appeared primarily as part of the zakuski table, the display of pre-dinner snacks presented separately from the main meal, and part of the man’s world. In the records of the Golokhvastov family, most cheese purchases appear in the account books of the man of the house, not in the general kitchen expense accounts. [1. RGADA f. 1264, op. 1, dd. 169, 294, 305]

In the minds of some, this kind of new taste had larger implications. In 1764, the Russian Academy of Sciences, in its journal Monthly Essays or Monthly Papers, posed two “problems” to its readers. This was a common method used by scholarly and semi-scholarly societies in the eighteenth century. The Academy of Sciences and later the Free Economic Society would identify a current issue facing the country and pose it as a question in the pages of their journals, inviting readers to conduct experiments, propose solutions, or otherwise contribute to the improvement of Russia.

In this case, the Academy identified a particular problem: Russia needed better cheese. In particular, it needed to produce better cheese domestically. “The cheese that is made here in the villages is not worthy of the name,” the Academy noted. The goal of this production was simple: “Even if we were to produce cheese only for our own use, so that it is no longer necessary to buy it from foreigners, then even only that would be a great profit for us.” [1. “Zadacha,” Ezhemesiachnye sochineniia (March 1764): 283-88, here 286-87]

In other words, the argument went, (elite) Russians were spending too much money on foreign cheese (among other foreign luxury goods), money that would be better spent inside the country. Producing better cheese at home would eliminate one source of that drain. And so, journals and cookbooks began to include instructions for producing cheeses—and not just any cheeses, but the great cheeses of Europe. Limburger, cheddar, parmesan, gruyere. More generic “Swiss” and “Dutch” cheeses. All appeared in household guides through the first half of the nineteenth century, at least. Any householder, these recipes suggested, could save money by producing these cheeses at home—and save Russia from a trade imbalance at the same time!

On one level, of course, this kind of concern was ridiculous. For all that some late-eighteenth century authors were beginning to lament Russia’s supposedly excessive importing of luxury goods, cheese was a relatively minor part of the larger imported luxury good market. In 1793-95, Russians imported 121,300 rubles of cheese (and paid an additional 9,800 rubles in duty payments) from Europe, but that sum was less than one percent of the total luxury imports of that period. [1. Arcadius Kahan, “The Costs of ‘Westernization’ in Russia: The Gentry and the Economy in the Eighteenth Century,” Slavic Review 25, no. 1 (1966): 40-66, here 44]

On another level, however, and as ridiculous as it might sound, cheese was particularly open to such over-interpretation. Cheese was not just any luxury import. Instead, imported cheese, with its strong flavors, was often an acquired taste, and furthermore a taste acquired by those with a certain cultural level—it was, echoing Bourdieu, a mark of distinction. Anyone might enjoy something sweetened with cane sugar (the most imported luxury good), but only a select few could truly appreciate and enjoy the taste of a stinky, pungent, cheese. Efforts to promote domestic cheese manufacture can therefore be read at least in part as an effort to domesticate this unaccustomed taste, and in so doing to remove, ever so slightly, its ability to serve as a mark of distinction (the Academy of Science’s statement of the problem even noted that a hoped-for outcome of increased cheese production would the development of a wider taste for cheese among the Russian population, which would then create increased demand for domestically produced cheeses).

In any event, by the end of the eighteenth century the notion that cheese ought to be produced domestically had gained significant currency in Russia. And given the belief that Swiss cheese was among the best in the world, who better to produce that cheese on a larger scale than a Swiss cheese master?

Of course, the second part of the answer to why the Swiss cheese master was working in Gatchina needs to focus on Gatchina itself, and on the persona of its then owner and frequent occupant, Emperor Paul. And so, next time, part III: The Emperor and the Palace.

By Alison Smith

Professor, University of Toronto, Department of History;

Author of For the Common Good and Their Own Well-Being: Social Estates in Imperial Russia (Oxford University Press, 2014)

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