The history of cheese

If you are a home cheese maker or a cheese lover, here are a few facts you will want to know about cheese. If you are interested in making your own cheese at home, check out our instructional post How to Make cheese at Home. You can also check out our favourite cheese recipes on our Cheese Making Recipes page.

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For more information about cheese ingredients, check out our Ingredients in Cheese post.

The Origin of Cheese

In studying the history of cheese we learn that since the beginning of time milk has been, and still is, the first food mammals consume. Many of mankind’s discoveries, going back through the origins of the human race, were perceived as divine gifts. This includes cheese.

The ancient Greek believed that cheese originally came out of the horn of the goat Amaltheia. Today this horn is known as “the horn of plenty”. The legend says that the famous Zeus was nourished by the milk from that goat. These legends remind us about the deeper meaning of our origin and what nourishes us.

Many famous writers and philosophers wrote about cheese:

  • The Greek poet Archestratos probably wrote the first cook-book, mentioning cheese.
  • The Greek Hyppocrates thought cheese contributed to a depressed mind and turned the gall black.
  • The Greek Epicurus  was one of the first to explain how cheese was made and talks highly about the art of cheese making.
  • The famous Aristotle claims that the best cheese is made from camel, horse, and donkey milk.
  • The Roman poet Vergil enthused what sensual emotions the consumption of cheese can trigger.

Stone age Cheese

Cheese is basically highly condensed milk. With the exception of two of the whey proteins, all milk components make it into the cheese. The main ingredient in the process of cheese making is an enzyme called rennet. This enzyme is produced in the stomach of baby ruminants (1), and it helps to break down the milk that they need in the first 3 months of their lives. Since the digestive tract of ruminants is designed to break down high fiber foods, like grass or hay, young ruminants (like calfs) need the rennet to break down the milk. The rennet causes the milk to curdle in the first stomach. This is a different process than sour milk that curdles, and does not carry a foul odour or taste. We make the assumption that people in the stone age found curdled milk in the stomach of young ruminants that were hunted, giving form to the first concepts of cheese. Luckily, we have come a long way since the stone age and we have easier and more practical ways of producing cheese.

Storing Perishable Food Products Before the Modern Age

Once humans evolved from hunter/ gatherers to farmers, they started domesticating animals like goats, sheep, and eventually cows. They began collecting their milk on a regular basis.

There were two ways to make the milk last longer than just a day without refrigeration:

1.       Acidify the milk: 

They would let the milk go sour, making something similar to what we know today as buttermilk. The acidity of the sour milk would protect it from going bad; However, this product would still start to mould after a week or so, depending on the season’s temperature.

2.       Make Cheese: 

These early farmers would take the stomach of a calf or goat kid and would soak it in water. The rennet enzyme would dissolve and, after pouring that enzyme rich water into the milk, it would coagulate and the cheese making process begins. The drier they made the cheese, by pressing the water out of it, the longer it would keep. It is also believed that early humans used the stomach of small ruminants to store the milk, which made the milk coagulate and, coincidentally, cheese was produced.

Milk and dairy products have been a staple food for thousands of years. The basic principles of cheese making have not changed during this time. Here is an overview of the cheese time table:

Brief Time Table:

The Cheese Shark. The history of cheese
And old cheese factory in the Swiss Mountains

The oldest records show that cheese was made about 5000 BC in Egypt, Northern Africa, and what is known today as Iraq. About 4000 BC the Celts brought Cheese across the Alps. In the Roman Empire Cheese was part of the daily diet.

Most of the famous European cheeses we know today were created after about 1000 AD in monasteries across Europe.

It wasn’t until the mid 1800’s that Louis Pasteur ( the inventor of the pasteurization) started to understand why and how cheese ripens and what exactly happens to milk during the cheese making and curing process. This allowed cheese makers to refine and tweak their recipes. With the industrial revolution the process became more efficient and mechanized. 

The biggest breakthrough was the isolation of specific milk bacteria that were typical for the regional cheese types. In the early days, the cheese makers would make cheese with whatever bacteria was found naturally in the milk. Over time, they learned to keep milk that would create an outstanding taste, only using leftovers from that milk to create the next batch of cheese. This would keep this specific bacteria going. But it was not until science was able to extract the best of these bacteria strains and isolate them in labs. Nowadays, thousands of different cheeses and dairy bacteria are available. These bacteria create a typical type of flavor and make the cheese ripen in a typical format.

The art of making cheese keeps living on. From large cheese plants to small scale, on farm cheese producers. Traditional century old cheese recipes are still carefully followed and new creations of amazing new cheeses are being crafted and marketed to a consumer who wants to try new flavours and ideas.

Was this article informative? Please let me know if you have additional information on the history of cheese.

(1). Ruminant – An even-toed ungulate mammal that chews the cud regurgitated from its rumen. The ruminants comprise the cattle, sheep, antelopes, deer, giraffes, and their relatives.

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