History of Cheese

June 28, 2010

The history of cheese begins with the domestication of livestock, happening 9,000 to 12,000 years ago in the Near East. Cattle, sheep, and goats were kept for meat, wool, and other supplies, but when fed well enough, they would produce a surplus of milk beyond what their young could drink. Storing milk would have been difficult, as it would have soured in a few days. This souring process probably lead to the first yogurts (still very much a part of that region’s diet) and eventually cheese.

There are no written records about the invention of cheese, but popular speculation talks about how a nomad might have put milk into a container made out of a stomach, and that the rennet from the stomach curdled the milk. However, I believe this is half of the story. While the use of rennet was probably known, it was not regularly used until Roman times in the first century AD. My own thoughts is that an acid, such as lemon juice or grape juice turned vinegar, was splashed into warm milk, which caused it to curdle, much in the way the mascarpone and queso blanco DIY kits worked for making fresh cheeses. This technique would have been easier to perform and explain how cheese was made for so many centuries without rennet.

There is evidence, though, of dairy product consumption. Shane Sokol stated in And That’s How You Make Cheese!:

Ancient records mention how cheese and butter were made thought Egypt from about 4,000 BC onward. Cheese is mentioned many times in ancient texts, including the Bible where David carried ten cheeses to the army before slaying Goliath. In fact, the stadium of Jerusalem was build in the valley called Tyropaeon, meaning the valley of the cheese makers.

Barbara Ciletti writes in Making Great Cheese at Home, “According to archaeological finds, cheese was not only made, but molded and drained, as early as 2,700-2,800 BC. We know that certain terra-cotta urns were made with cheese in mine, because before firing they were perforated with tiny holes for draining.”

Being able to make cheese out of milk was very important in ancient life. Milk did not keep for more than a few days, and the livestock would only give milk after giving birth in the spring for a few months, so there was no milk later in the winter. Cheese allowed for long term storage and actually got better with age, and it was easier to transport than milk, all of which made cheese easier to trade than milk. Also, a small chunk of cheese had plenty of nutrition to sustain a person. Ciletti writes, “Roman soldiers carried great wedges of Parmesan and percorino, sturdy cheeses easy to cart around the countryside. These dryer, hard cheeses were less apt to spoil under the hot sun and staved off hunger during months of travel.”

Since Roman times, cheesemaking has spread and grown into a major industry. While I am skipping a lot of history between then and now, I must add two new modern techniques added that have changed cheesemaking. The first was  producing cheese in factories. Cheesemaking, as I talked about earlier, was originally done by those who had livestock with a surplus of milk, so it was very small scale and craft. Wikipedia states:

The first factory for the industrial production of cheese opened in Switzerland in 1815, but it was in the United States where large-scale production first found real success. Credit usually goes to Jesse Williams, a dairy farmer from Rome, New York, who in 1851 started making cheese in an assembly-line fashion using the milk from neighboring farms. Within decades hundreds of such dairy associations existed…. Factory-made cheese overtook traditional cheesemaking in the World War II era, and factories have been the source of most cheese in America and Europe ever since.

The second modern technique was Louis Paseur’s invention of the pasteurization process in 1850. Cheesemaking then turned away from using raw milk and allowed for large scale cheese making to begin, since the risk of losing a batch due to bacteria was greatly reduced. However, today there is an attempt at returning to raw milk cheeses as they taste better.

Sources and other readings:


One Response to “History of Cheese”

  1. Lena Says:

    Apparently rennet was very well known and used in ancient times until forbidden by Hebrew law (History of Food, Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat, 1987).

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