The History of Cheese

cheese2The story goes something like this: an ancient Arab sets out on a journey across the desert. In preparation, he puts a ration of milk into a handy sheep’s stomach to transport it. (Those ancient Arabs didn’t waste many animal parts.) When the sun goes down, he makes camp and discovers that, due to the rennet in the sheep’s stomach and the hot sun, his milk has separated into thin, milky whey and lumpy curds of cheese. He drinks one and eats the other, discovering that the whey is refreshing and the curds are utterly delicious.

There’s probably nothing much to this story. Perhaps it’s the work of the imaginative Ancient Arabian Dairy Association, if there was such an institution. What we do know for sure is that cheese predates recorded history. It may have originated accidentally in Arabia like the story goes, or it could be European.  Wherever it happened, it does seem somewhat plausible that the practice of storing liquids in such things as the stomach of animal may really have led to the accidental invention of cheese because of the rennet, as noted.

Whatever the case, what we know for sure is that by the time the Roman Empire began conquering nations, cheese was already on the menu—and cheese making was a firmly established enterprise. The wealthiest of Romans even had a separate kitchen just for the making of cheese, and in this caseale, cheese could be stored to mature or be smoked. The Roman legions packed it along when they conquered Gaul. The ancient Greeks credited Aristaeus, a son of Apollo, with its discovery, and the Old Testament refers to it.

Likewise, the Egyptians depict cheese making on tomb walls that date back to 2000 BC. There’s archaeological evidence of cheese making in Poland three thousand years earlier than that. In Homer’s Odyssey, the Cyclops made cheese from goat’s and sheep’s milk, and by the time Pliny the Elder penned his Natural History in 77 AD, he devoted an entire chapter to the variety of cheeses available around the Empire, including a smoked goat’s milk that sounds like it could still win some ribbons at the Wisconsin State Fair.

Six hundred years before the proposition that the moon was made of green cheese (it’s not… or so scientists of the world would have us believe so they can keep all the cheese to themselves.  Facts:  Nerds often become scientists.  Nerds can often be seen in labs eating pizza.  Pizza typically has generous amounts of cheese on it. Wake up sheeple!)… Where was I?   Ah yes, around the 8th century, Emperor Charlemagne was encountering a mellow white cheese encased in an edible rind that might be likened to brie. Gorgonzola has been made in the Po River Valley since 897. French monks have been producing Roquefort since as far back as 1070. Cheddar dates back to about 1500 in England, while records show that Italy has been producing Parmesan since 1597. The resourceful Dutch have been making wheels of Gouda since 1697, and mild French Camembert dates from before 1791.

While cheese is certainly ancient, it is by no means universal.  Ancient European and Middle Eastern texts are full of references to cheese, but other parts of the world never mention it. One of the chief differences is the era in which domestication of milk-producing animals began in different parts of the world. Sheep and goats were domesticated about 8500 BC in Western Asia; cattle debuted as domestic critters around 7000 BC in the Eastern Sahara—both cheese-making regions. The alpaca and llama became domesticated in the Andes Mountains of South America around 4500 BC; while Tibet tamed the yak and Pakistanis began herding water buffalo about 2500 BC. Evidence abounds that cheese making came along very soon after in each locale.

Meanwhile, the enterprising Chinese tamed the silkworm as early as 3500 BC and began spinning and weaving garments soon after, but they didn’t tame any milk-producing animals until much later—and they never acquired the taste for cheese.  Until relatively recent times, cheese was unheard of in East Asia or sub-Mediterranean Africa, while cheese culture spread across Europe, the Indian subcontinent and the Middle East, and spread further with the expansion of European imperialism.

Historically cheese was largely made at home or in monasteries in Europe during the dark ages and Renaissance. The first cheese factory opened in Switzerland in 1815, commercially producing gruyere. Though it’s refuted by some, Wisconsin celebrates Anne Pickett for establishing the first cheese factory in the U.S. in 1841.

In 1851, Jesse Williams, a dairy farmer in Rome, New York, started the assembly-line production of cheese, using milk from neighboring dairy farms and creating the first of many dairy associations. In Wisconsin, the U.S.’s most celebrated cheese state, limburger was the first cheese produced commercially; its Green County factory opening in 1868.

Perhaps the greatest step toward consistent flavor in cheeses came in the 1860s when rennet became a mass-produced commodity and forty years later, pure microbial cultures were created to replace whey recycled from the previous day’s cheese production as the source of essential bacteria.

Regardless of regional variety, cheese is essentially water, lactose, fat, protein and minerals. The protein is both whey, the liquid, and casein which makes up the bulk of cheese solids. Cheese can be made from the milk of just about any milk producing animal—from cow to camel, goat to sheep, water buffalo to yak. The variety of flavors is the result of the differences in milk, salt content, aging, storage and handling, and any additives that may find their way into the finished product.

Cheese caught on as a way to preserve the nutrition of milk for longer than a day or two. Europeans spread this idea to the Americas, even packing it away on the Mayflower and in the hold of explorers’ ships that circumvented the globe.  But if it wasn’t so universally enjoyed, it would never have become one of the world’s favorite foods. Think of it this way, you could eat a different variety of cheese every day for the next four years and not start repeating your favorites until the last three months. That’s a long time to wait for a mozzarella-covered pizza or your favorite grilled cheese sandwich.

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[Cheese Image via Shutterstock] Expand for References
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  • The article says” Cheese can be made from the milk of just about any milk producing animal”. I’ve occasionally wondered if cheese can be made from human breast milk? If not, why not?