History of Cheese W. Kandinsky, Squares with Concentric Rings

History of Cheese

Cheese is one of the most varied and subtle foods in the world. In taste cheese can be bland, buttery, innocuous, rich, creamy, pungent, sharp, salty or lightly delicate. In texture it can be hard enough to chip off in flakes, so soft and runny that it needs to be eaten with a spoon or at any one of a dozen points of softness and firmness between these two extremes. In aroma, cheese can be rank and overpowering enough to turn the stomach of the strongest man (and still be eaten with relish by devotees), delicately aromatic or virtually unnoticeable. Cheese can serve as the perfect companion for wines, a superbly satisfying finale to a gourmet meal or simply as a basic nourishing foodstuff for family snacks.

The Start
Archaeologists have discovered that as far back as 6000 BC cheese had been made from cow's and goat's milk and stored in tall jars. Egyptian tomb murals of 2000 BC show butter and cheese being made, and other murals which show milk being stored in skin bags suspended from poles demonstrate a knowledge of dairy husbandry at that time.

It is likely that nomadic tribes of Central Asia found animal skin bags a useful way to carry milk on animal backs when on the move. Fermentation of the milk sugars would cause the milk to curdle and the swaying motion would break up the curd to provide a refreshing whey drink. The curds would then be removed, drained and lightly salted to provide a tasty and nourishing high protein food, i.e. a welcome supplement to meat protein.

Cheesemaking, thus, gradually evolved from two main streams. The first was the liquid fermented milks such as yoghurt, koumiss and kefir. The second through allowing the milk to acidify to form curds and whey. Whey could then be drained either through perforated earthenware bowls or through woven reed baskets or similar material.

The Legend

Most authorities consider that cheese was first made in the Middle East. The earliest type was a form of sour milk which came into being when it was discovered that domesticated animals could be milked. A legendary story has it that cheese was 'discovered' by an unknown Arab nomad. He is said to have filled a saddlebag with milk to sustain him on a journey across the desert by horse. After several hours riding he stopped to quench his thirst, only to find that the milk had separated into a pale watery liquid and solid white lumps. Because the saddlebag, which was made from the stomach of a young animal, contained a coagulating enzyme known as rennin, the milk had been effectively separated into curds and whey by the combination of the rennin, the hot sun and the galloping motions of the horse. The nomad, unconcerned with technical details, found the whey drinkable and the curds edible.

The Jews

From Biblical sources we learn that when David escaped across the River Jordan he was fed with 'cheese of kine' (cows) (2 Samuel 17:29), and it is said that he presented ten cheeses to the captain of the army drawn up to do battle with Saul (1 Samuel 17:18). Indeed, records show that there was at one time a location near Jerusalem called 'The Valley of the Cheesemakers'. Clearly, skills had been developed to preserve milk either as an acid-curd based cheese or as a range of lactic cheeses, and fermented milks such as today's unsweetened natural yoghurt.

Roman Cheesemaking

Learning these techniques, the Romans with their characteristic efficiency were quick to develop cheesemaking to a fine art. Cheesemaking was done with skill and knowledge and reached a high standard. By this time the ripening process had been developed and it was known that various treatments and conditions under storage resulted in different flavours and characteristics. The larger Roman houses had a separate cheese kitchen, the caseale, and also special areas where cheese could be matured. In large towns home-made cheese could be taken to a special centre to be smoked. Written evidence shows clearly how far the Romans had changed the art of cheesemaking:-

Homer, ca. 1184 BC, refers to cheese being made in the mountain caves of Greece from the milk of sheep and goats. Indeed one variety called 'Cynthos' was made and sold by the Greeks to the Romans at a price of about 1p per lb. This could well have been the Feta cheese of today.

Aristotle, 384 - 322 BC, commented on cheese made from the milk of mares and asses - the Russian 'koumiss' is in fact derived from mare's milk and is fermented to provide an alcoholic content of up to 3%.

Varro, ca. 127 BC, had noted the difference in cheeses made from a number of locations and commented on their digestibility. By this time the use of rennet had become commonplace, providing the cheesemaker with far greater control over the types of curd produced. Cheese had started to move from subsistence to commercial levels and could be marketed accordingly.

Columella, ca. AD 50, wrote about how to make cheese in considerable detail. Scottish cheesemakers today would be perfectly at home with many of the principles he set out so clearly some 1900 years ago.

By AD 300, cheese was being regularly exported to countries along the Mediterranean seaboard. Trade had developed to such an extent that the emperor Diocletian had to fix maximum prices for a range of cheeses including an apple-smoked cheese highly popular with Romans. Yet another cheese was stamped and sold under the brand name of 'La Luna', and is said to have been the precursor of today's Parmesan which was first reported as an individual make of cheese in AD 1579.

Thus, Roman expertise spread throughout Europe wherever their empire extended. While the skills remained at first with the landowners and Roman farmers, there is little doubt that in time they also percolated down to the local population. Roman soldiers, who had completed their military service and intermarried with the local populace, set up their 'coloniae' farms in retirement, and may well have passed on their skills in cheesemaking.

With the collapse of the Roman Empire around AD 410, cheesemaking spread slowly via the Mediterranean, Aegean and Adriatic seas to Southern and Central Europe. The river valleys provided easy access and methods adopted for production were adapted to suit the different terrain and climatic conditions. Cheesemakers in remote mountainous areas naturally used the milk of goats and sheep.

Tribes such as the Helvetica, who had settled in the Swiss Alps, developed their own distinctive types of cheese. They were in fact so successful in doing this that for a period all export of their Emmental cheese was banned. In Central and Eastern Europe the displacement of people through centuries of war and invasion inevitably slowed down developments in cheesemaking until the Middle Ages. Production was often restricted to the more remote mountainous areas where sensible cheesemakers simply kept their heads down and hoped for the best.

In the fertile lowlands of Europe dairy husbandry developed at a faster pace and cheesemaking from cows' milk became the norm. Hence, the particular development of cheeses such as Edam and Gouda in the Netherlands. This was much copied elsewhere under a variety of similar names such as Tybo and Fynbo. A hard-pressed cheese, relatively small in size, brine-salted and waxed to reduce moisture losses in storage, proved both marketable and easy to distribute.

France developed a wider range of cheeses from the rich agricultural areas in the south and west of that country. By and large,soft cheese production was preferred with a comparatively long making season. Hard-pressed cheese appeared to play a secondary role. To some extent this reflects the Latin culture of the nation, mirroring the cheese types produced in the Mediterranean areas as distinct from the hard-pressed cheese that were developed in the northern regions of Europe for storage and use in the long cold winter months that lay ahead.

However, throughout the Dark Ages little new progress was made in developing new cheese types.

Middle Ages
During the Middle Ages, monks became innovators and developers and it is to them we owe many of the classic varieties of cheese marketed today. During the Renaissance period cheese suffered a drop in popularity, being considered unhealthy, but it regained favour by the nineteenth century, the period that saw the start of the move from farm to factory production.

The Development of Some Cheese Varieties with the Date First Recorded

Cheese Variety Year(AD)
-------------- --------
Gorgonzola 879
Roquefort 1070
Grana 1200
Cheddar 1500
Parmesan 1579
Gouda 1697
Gloucester 1697
Stilton 1785
Camembert 1791
Data compiled from Scott (1986).

* Types of Cheese
* Cheesemaking in Scotland - An Early History