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Roman dairying

Monday 10 June, 2019, by Karen Griffiths

With sophisticated grazing systems already in place the Roman army had little trouble setting up supplies of meat and dairy products when they arrived in Wensleydale in the first century AD. The Roman fort at Bainbridge must have sucked in farm produce from all over the dale and beyond.

Aerial photo of the remains of Bainbridge Roman fort. © YDNPA Robert White
Aerial photo of the remains of Bainbridge Roman fort. © YDNPA Robert White

Archaeologists have studied the cattle bones excavated from the fort. Up to half of the animals were cattle, butchered for meat on site. However, most were slaughtered well past their prime meat age which means they had been alive well into adulthood, 3 to 4 years on average. The theory is that because the grazing in the area was poor, the animals took longer to mature. We suggest an alternative theory which is that the grazing in Wensleydale was actually pretty good by the Roman era and that females were actually being used as dairy cows, milked for several years, before being killed and eaten.

We know that Romans enjoyed fine cheese, and ceramic whey strainers like this one found in North Hertfordshire are occasionally found in Britain. There’s even a suggestion that one was dug up at Bainbridge. Milk was curdled using an acid like vinegar, or digestive enzymes found in a calf’s stomach. The liquid whey was strained from the solid curds using perforated pots like this. Analysis of the clay walls of these vessels tells us that they once contained milk solids.

Roman ceramic whey strainer  ©North Hertfordshire Museum
Roman ceramic whey strainer © North Hertfordshire Museum

We found some fascinating translations from original Latin texts on cheese and cheesemaking:

“…when the liquid has thickened, it should immediately be transferred to wicker vessels or baskets or moulds; for it is of the utmost importance that the whey should percolate as quickly as possible and become separated from the solid matter. For this reason the country folk do not even allow the whey to drain away slowly of its own accord, but, as soon as the cheese has become somewhat more solid, they place weights on the top of it, so that the whey may be pressed out.”
Lucius Junius Moderatus Columella (AD 4-c70) ‘On Agriculture’

“That salt exists in pasture-lands is pretty evident, from the fact that all cheese as it grows old contracts a saltish flavour, even where it does not appear to any great extent; while at the same time it is equally well known that cheese soaked in a mixture of thyme and vinegar will regain its original fresh flavour. It is said that Zoroaster lived thirty years in the wilderness upon cheese, prepared in such a peculiar manner, that he was insensible to the advances of old age.”
Pliny the Elder (AD 23–79) ‘The Natural History’

“Cheese should be made of pure milk which is as fresh as possible, for if it is left to stand or mixed with water, it quickly turns sour. It should usually be curdled with rennet obtained from a lamb or a kid, though it can also be coagulated with the flower of the wild thistle or the seeds of the safflower, and equally well with the liquid which flows from a fig-tree if you make an incision in the bark while it is still green.”
Lucius Junius Moderatus Columella (AD 4-c70) ‘On Agriculture’

We don’t know what these cows looked like. They averaged just under 1.3m tall at the shoulder whereas a black and white Holstein cow is at least 1.5m, so they were definitely smaller than the modern dairy cow. They also found ox bones at Bainbridge fort. Oxen are castrated males, used as docile beasts of burden.

Picture of Karen Griffiths

Karen Griffiths

Interpretation Officer for the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority


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