A Brief History of Foods: Cheese
Updated: Aug 18, 2021
As mammals, humans are all supposed to be lactose intolerant and yet more than 70% of western Europeans have no problem drinking milk and eating dairy products. The reasons why can be read here, but suffice to say, cheese has played its part.
Cheesemaking Cheese is essentially spoilt milk. The cheesemaker’s skill is to control the spoiling to produce cheese . Milk is heated to a temperature required to promote the growth of the bacteria which will feed on and ferment the lactose in the milk into lactic acid. During the fermentation process, the cheesemaker has to gauge when sufficient lactic acid has been developed. At that point, rennet  is added and, over a period of time, the casein in the milk creates a solid (“curd”) and a liquid (“whey”). Separating the curd from the whey not only limits bacterial decomposition, but also produces the desired, partially dehydrated, cheese that will keep for longer. Significantly, the whey proteins, other major milk proteins, and lactose are all removed in the cheese whey. The process of cheesemaking, therefore, reduces the lactose present to a degree whereby some lactose intolerant people can digest small amounts of cheese without side-effects.
Unknown beginnings Cheesemaking has a long history but precisely when humans first began the practice is not known. It seems reasonable, however, to connect cheesemaking with the earliest known domestication of milk producing animals. How cheese was first produced, however, remains lost in prehistory. It is theorised that, before pottery vessels were developed, milk was stored in bladders made from ruminants' stomachs. If so, then the rennet naturally present may have induced a coagulation process separating the curds from the whey. If correct, then cheese may have been discovered by accident.
Earliest evidence There is no conclusive evidence indicating where cheese-making originated, possibly Europe, or Central Asia, the Middle East, or the Sahara . It is archaeology, however, that has provided some of the best dating evidence for cheese:
● Cheesemaking has been found on Egyptian tomb murals dating back over 4,000 years.
● Cheese is thought to have originated in the Middle East around 5,000 BC . Evidence of cheesemaking can be found in a band of carvings on the walls of an ancient Mesopotamian temple that date back to 3,000 BC. The ancient carvings show the process by which a cheese-like substance was created, using salt and milk to produce a salty sour curd mixture. From experiments we have done, the result would be somewhat similar to cottage cheese (as suggested by Homer’s epic poem).
● Pieces of ceramic vessels with many perforations, reminiscent of cheese strainers, were discovered in Poland. Dated to 5,500 years ago, chemical analysis by Dr. Melanie Roffet-Salque of the University of Bristol showed they had been used for processing dairy products.
● In 2018 it was reported  that traces of fatty acids had been found on fragments of pottery from Pokrovnik on the Dalmatian coast, Croatia and dated to 7,000 years ago. Carbon dating also produced a definitive chemical diagnosis that the Pokrovnik samples are from the cheese making process. The discovery means humans were making cheese 2,000 years earlier than previously thought, pushing the date back from the Bronze Age to the Neolithic era.
The surviving fragments of cheese moulds or strainers are evidence of the ancient cheesemakers' earliest tools. Before the Bronze Age, baskets were used to separate the cheese curds. As technology advanced, cheese moulds were introduced made of pottery or possibly wood; the organic nature of wood makes its survival rare. The cheese curds would be placed inside the mould, to which a lid was added, and by applying pressure the whey would be separated and drain from the holes in the mould. The cheesemaker’s art was to drain as much whey as possible. With less moisture retained in the cheese, a much firmer cheese resulted.
Historical sources We do have one of the earliest written descriptions of cheesemaking is in Homer's epic poem, the Odyssey . The poet describes how the Cyclops Polyphemus made a form of cottage cheese by storing milk in animal stomachs . Homer mentions Polyphemus shepherding sheep and goats, so it is likely that Homer is referring to the stomachs of these ruminants.
Today cheeses are most commonly made from cow’s milk, but ancient cheesemakers, such as the Greeks, preferred goat’s milk. As smaller animals, goats require less grazing than cattle. In mountainous Greece, where good pasture was at a premium, it would have been easier, and make more sense, to herd goats into the hills to graze. By so doing, the more fertile land in the river valleys and plains was freed for essential arable production.
Much later, as Rome expanded its territory, the Romans spread the knowledge of cheese, and discovered many new forms. Hundreds of varieties were being produced and traded across the Empire . The Roman influence, through documentation and trial and error, aided the refining and improving of cheesemaking techniques. Yet, despite the Roman stimulus, many of the popular cheeses enjoyed today are relatively new to the story. Cheddar, Swiss, Parmesan and Gouda, for example, only appeared within the last 500 years .
Today By far, cheesemaking was most common in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. It was unheard of, or far less common, in sub-Saharan Africa, the rest of Asia, and pre-colonization Americas. Today, in Britain alone, there are at least seventeen cheese types with protected status out of some 700 different varieties listed by the British Cheese Board. In contrast, France has just over 50 protected cheeses, Italy around 47, and Spain 26. Beyond Europe (the Middle East and the Americas), cheese is far less prominent in local cuisines. Where cheeses have become popular worldwide this is mostly the result of the spread and influence of European and Euro-American empires and culture.
1. Wikipedia, Cheesemaking, (accessed August 10th, 2020).
2. Rennet is a complex set of enzymes (proteins that act as biological catalysts (biocatalysts) that accelerate chemical reactions.) produced in the stomachs of ruminant mammals (who acquire nutrients from plant-based food).
3. From the Romans onwards, cheese makers have sought other ways to coagulate milk. For those who are lactose intolerant or vegetarian, substitutes for animal rennet are now used that range from plants and fungi to microbial sources.
4. Wikipedia, History of cheese, (accessed August 10th, 2020).
5. Litopoulou-Tzanetaki, E. (2007), 'Soft-ripened and fresh cheeses: Feta, Quark, Halloumi and related varieties', Improving the Flavour of Cheese, Woodhead Publishing Series in Food Science, Technology and Nutrition, pp. 474-493.
6. Macdonald, K. (2018), Traces found of 'world's oldest cheese', BBC News, (accessed August 10th, 2020).
7. Scholars believe this poem was composed near the end of the 8th-century BC.
8. National Historic Cheesemaking Center, History of Cheese, (accessed August 10th, 2020).
9. Cheddar was first recorded in AD 1500, Parmesan around 1597, Gouda in 1697, and Camembert in 1791.
10. Dalby, A. (2009), Cheese: a global history, London: Reaktion Books, pp. 23-25, 35.