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Competitive Cheese Cutting through the Ages

 Cheese Cutting was once a popular sport, but sadly, it no longer draws the raucous crowds for which it was once famed.

A Competetive Cheese Cutting Knife Set. Limited edition, by the Guild Internationale des Fromage.
A Competetive Cheese Cutting Knife Set. Limited edition, by the Guild Internationale des Fromage.

Beginnings


Cheesemaking dates back over eight-thousand years. It followed the domestication of sheep and goats between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in modern-day Iraq.

Early cheese was soft and doughy, similar in texture to cottage cheese. It failed to hold its shape when cut.


In the first millennia, cheesemakers learnt how to make drier cheeses that could be transported without spoiling and carved into neat shapes. As a result, cheese soon became a staple for the Legions of the Roman Empire. Among them, Cheese Cutting became a popular pastime, but whether or not the Romans developed it into a full-blown sport is still up for debate.


Many of the cheeses we enjoy today were first produced in the middle ages. Cheddar in 1500 CE, Parmigiano-Reggiano in 1597, Gouda in 1697 and Camembert in 1791.


Monasteries were once important centres of cheesemaking in Europe and England. Still, until the 19th-century, cheesemaking remained a small-scale, local enterprise. Industrial production of cheese did not begin until 1815 in Switzerland. Large scale factory cheese production got underway in the United States in the mid-1850s.

Writing in the late eighteenth century, the Austrian Physicist, Karl Heinz Lipzgraz asked, “Ist es möglich, einen geometrisch perfekten Käseblock zu schneiden?”

(Is it possible to cut a geometrically perfect block of cheese ?)

This simple ponderance unwittingly kicked off a flurry of cheese cutting competitions across Europe, with competitors all vying to produce the perfect cut.



Évariste Galois and the lost letter


In the early 1830s, the young French mathematician, Évariste Galois, submitted several papers to the prestigious Guild Internationale des Fromages, expanding on the Lipzgraz cheese-question.


A portrait of Évariste Galois aged about 15
A portrait of Évariste Galois aged about 15

Galois suggested a theoretical limit to the maximum accuracy of freehand cheese cutting, and he proposed mechanical cutting.

This outraged the conservative patrons of Guild Internationale des Fromages. Galois was promptly arrested on the trumped-up charge of illegal cheese making.

After release from prison, hostility towards Galois did not wane. Instead, he was challenged to a duel for insulting the Guild Internationale des Fromages.

On the night before his fatal gunfight, Galois wrote a mathematical expose that explored the relationship between the flexibility of cheese and cutting a perfectly symmetrical wedge.

Years later, the mathematician Hermann Weyl said, "This letter, if judged by the novelty and profundity of ideas it contains, is perhaps the most substantial piece of writing in the whole literature of mankind."

Sadly, the Galois letter has not survived.


Galois partook in his fatal due on 30 May 1832.

His heartbreaking last words to words to his younger brother, Alfred, were:

"Ne pleure pas, Alfred ! J'ai besoin de tout mon courage pour mourir à vingt ans !" (Don't cry, Alfred! I need all my courage to die at twenty!)


Cheese Cutting Competitions


There are five competitive cheese cuts: the Slice, the Wedge, the Block, the Wheel and the Log. Competitive Cheese Competitions treat these disciplines separately, and prizes are awarded for each.


The Dutch Cheese Cutting Champion of 1907, Barend Van de Berg, astonished all at the London Olympics of 1908 by taking out Gold in all five categories. To this day, he remains the first person to achieve this feat. The Lipzgraz Square is arguably the most difficult cheese-cut to produce. Few competitive cheese-cutters are brave enough to tackle it.

Karl Heinz Lipzgraz presented this version of his square to the Habsburg Court in Vienna in 1776. He'd worked tirelessly on the top right corner of this particular square for the best part of a decade before deciding it was square enough to unveil.

Tragically, his 1776 Square was rejected, leaving Lipzgraz a broken man. He died soon after of excessive cramp in his left arm, perhaps the result of long hours spent cutting cheese?

'Lipzgraz Verdächtig Tod Durch Krämpfe’, a painting of the Lipzgraz postmortem.
'Lipzgraz Verdächtig Tod Durch Krämpfe’, a painting of the Lipzgraz postmortem.

Ironically, the Lipzgraz Square gained popularity after this untimely death, and producing an accurate rendition of the Lipzgraz Square was considered the pinnacle of Cheese Cutting. However, competitive Cheese Cutting in Europe was suspended during World War One, and sadly never recovered.


In 1925, the Norwegian carpenter, Thor Bjørklund (1889-1975), invented the cheese slicer. Mechanical cutting, which Évariste Galois had proposed almost one hundred years prior, had now become reality.

The patented Cheese cutter went into production in 1927 and interest in freehand-cheese cutting fell away.


Modern Cheese Cutting


In 1967, Monsieur Pierre Pressure conducted experiments on Beaufort cheese, famed for its smooth, dense texture. First, Pierre Pressure tested various types of cheese spreaders and knives. Then, after perfecting a platinum cheese wire, he announced to the world that he'd produced the perfect wedge, "beyond the grasp of man."

However, subsequent attempts to reproduce a comparable wedge failed.

Furthermore, Melket was found to be lactose intolerant after his death, throwing his claims into further doubt.


Herman Melket and someone else, with his 1978 laser cheese-cutter.
Herman Melket and someone else, with his 1978 laser cheese-cutter.

In 1978 the German physicist, Herman Melket, used a helium-based neon laser with a wavelength of 632.8 metres to cut through a block of Lincolnshire Poacher. This handcrafted English cheese has the hard yet flexible character, on which Évariste Galois based his calculations.

But despite exhaustive efforts, Melket was unable to attain the micrometric tolerances which the perfect Wedge requires.

The Karl Heinz Lipzgraz question, 'Is it possible to cut a geometrically perfect block of cheese?’ remains unanswered.

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