Cooking trends through time: Why were Roman cheese presses so popular in the Lower Nene Valley?
With many people at home under lockdown, some have taken to their kitchens to channel their energies into new and exciting foods and recipes, sharing their efforts on social media using hashtags such as #lockdownkitchen and #lockdownlunch. Demand for ingredients and implements has been stimulated by this sharing of culinary trends, as well as articles covering the must-haves of a lockdown kitchen. In archaeology, we also see trends in food preparation techniques and technologies, often over different geographies or time periods.
For example: for some reason, cheese-presses appear to have been particularly popular in the Lower Nene Valley area (around Peterborough) during the Roman period. Cheese-presses were used to squeeze moisture out of cheese, by placing it between two of the ceramic discs and weighing it down, allowing the moisture to drain out through the holes. They are known from throughout Roman Britain but for some reason seem to have been especially common in this area, where local potteries made them in several different fabrics to cater for the market. The examples above, with their distinctive holes and contouring in the base, were found in midden waste dating to the 4th century AD, at Stanground near Peterborough.
Pressed wheels of cheese, once removed for sale or to be eaten, would have carried the impression of the concentric circles that you can see moulded into the base of the cheese press. Making milk into cheese was a useful way of prolonging the shelf-life of dairy without refrigeration, as a solid cheese would take longer to go bad and would be easier to store and transport than liquid milk.
Most large excavations around Peterborough turn up at least one example but the seven found at the Stanground excavations are thought to be the second largest collection found to date. In Roman times and to this day Peterborough sits on one of the main routes between northern and southern England, so it is possible that cheese was being produced to feed travellers making journeys across Britain.
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