Cheese making history is over 5000 years long. That journey from milk preservative to today’s dazzling variety of tastes and textures is truly fascinating.
We don’t know exactly when our ancestors began converting milk to cheese, but we do have good evidence of when it was already underway. 3000 year old cheese making paraphernalia has been found in both Europe and Egypt, whilst cave paintings in Egypt depicting cheese making date back some 4000 years. Before that, there is confirmed evidence from Poland of cheese making pots that were being used some 5,500 years ago and very recently (July 2013) evidence has arisen from an excavation in northern Europe suggesting that the history of rudimentary cheese making began 7000 years ago.
Intelligent speculation is also all we have to explain how we begun to make curds. What we know is that animal stomachs were routinely used as vessels for carrying liquid. What we believe is that the rennet naturally present in the stomachs of calves would have turned any milk being carried in them into curds and whey. However, cheese as we know it was not on the menu then. In Egypt, preserving techniques of salting and pressing were well established and it’s thought the accidental curds would have been treated the same way, producing something akin to a salty and sour feta in texture. The reality at the beginning of cheese’s history is that the process was valuable for preserving milk in a hot climate, rather than creating cheese for its own sake.
Cheese as recognise it today, with different flavours and textures, is thought to have arisen because of cooler European climates. All of a sudden, much less salt was needed for preserving the curds which meant microbes and moulds had a better chance of populating and growing in and on the preserved milk and it was this change that probably saw cheese being produced as a food stuff, rather than purely to keep milk from spoiling.
Indeed, by 2500 years ago the Roman Empire was making quite sophisticated cheeses (it even gets mentioned in the bible at 2 Samuel, 17). There are many recorded Roman writings referring to different kinds and the best places for them to be produced, including Nimes in present-day France, and that they were carrying out most of the processes we go through today to produce cheese: coagulation, salting, pressing and ageing. We know also that they flavoured cheese, for example with dried apple chips, and that they created harder cheeses, akin to Parmesan.
Roman history is one of invading and conquering many huge swathes of Europe. As they did so, many, many encounters with local populations brought about a massive diversification in cheese making. The combination of the Romans mixing their cheese making techniques with those the locals employed and different animal breeds, climates and feeding conditions caused the number of cheese flavours and kinds to proliferate.
In the Middle Ages cheese consumption increased. Made primarily by women, and still considered the best way of preserving milk, its density made it nutritious but cheap for the poor which is why bread and cheese were a significant part of the staple diet at that time. It was also the ideal travelling food for it was easily packed and lasted a good length of time without spoiling.
The history of American cheese making was begun by the colonial settlers of the 1700s. Milk from the dairies was skimmed of its cream for butter making, and what couldn’t be immediately consumed of the rest was preserved converting it to cheese.
The major changes in how cheese was made which get us to where we are today really begun with the invention of industrialised production in Switzerland in 1815. A few decades later, in the mid-1850s, Joseph Harding, ‘the father of cheese making’ was unveiling his system for ‘draining the curds of as much whey as possible’ in Somerset, UK, and so was born modern Cheddar cheese.
We get ever closer to modern cheese making with rennet being commercially produced from around 1860. This big leap forward saw the welcome end of sacrificing valuable unweaned male calves (females were important for continuing the heard) for the vital coagulant.
Starter Cultures underwent controlled production from the early 1900s, which is around the same time that milk Pasteurisation became the norm, making all dairy products inherently less risky to the population that consumed them.
Having been drowned in industrialised, processed cheese for many decades, today the UK enjoys the most diverse artisan cheese market in the world. We have an estimated 700 and growing distinct local cheeses, almost twice the number of both Italy and France. The love of purposefully crafted varieties is growing everywhere; even America (arguably the home of processed cheese) is experiencing massive growth in the number of dairies diversifying from pure milk production into one of artisan cheese making.
And so, the fascinating history of cheese continues to expand, and hopefully right in your own kitchen!
If you’re ready to have a go at making your first cheese at home, I strongly recommend using an inexpensive cheese making kit. I rate the very best kits here – get one and you’ll have made your first cheese within a week!
Further Reading on The History of Cheese
This article is limited in scope to a brief overview, however there is a wealth of knowledge and detail on the subject. The following are great resources if you’d like to know more:
http://medievalcheese.blogspot.co.uk/) Informative articles and discussion about cheese history
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_cheese Much more scholarly detail from Wikipedia
http://thefoodiebugle.com/article/cooks/in-search-of-the-real-traditional-british-cheese Fantastically interesting article detailing the history of UK cheese by Paul Thomas (Twitter: @wheymaker)