Jul 24, 2012

History of Cheese

~ photo by Eva Kröcher

If you've ever read the Little House on the Prairie books you might remember when Ma made cheese. Ever since I first read that, I've always wondered what it would be like and who first came up with the idea. So rather than just dive on in with a different kind of cheese each week, I thought it would be interesting to uncover a little history on cheese.

It's believed that cheese first appeared between 7000 and 6000 B.C., about the same time man first began to domesticate livestock. The legend goes that cheese was discovered by a desert nomad who was carrying milk in a bag made from a sheep's stomach. The lining of an animal's stomach contains the coagulating enzyme rennet, or rennin, which is necessary in the formation of cheese. The rennet in the sheep's stomach combined with the milk and was heated by the desert sun. When the nomad stopped for a rest, he found the milk had separated into solid white lumps and a pale, watery liquid. He drank the whey and tasted the curds and found them both delicious.

Of course there's no evidence to support this legend, and it's unknown exactly where cheese making originated, either in Europe, Central Asia, or the Middle East. The earliest archaeological evidence of cheese making was found in Egyptian tomb murals. The method of transforming milk into cheese was a closely guarded secret and only priests knew how it was done. The earliest cheeses were likely to have been both bitter and salty, similar in texture to a coarse cottage cheese or feta cheese.

To the Romans and the Greeks, cheese was at first considered a luxury food, available only to those who were wealthy enough to afford it. Many of the noble Roman houses had a separate kitchen for the making of cheese, as well as special store rooms where the cheese could mature.

It was determined that the quality of the milk used affected the quality of the cheese being made, and often herds were set to graze in flower-filled meadows to improve the value of the milk. And it was not just cow's milk or goat's milk that was used for cheese, there was also milk from sheep, horses, and donkeys.

Cheese making was considered a fine skill. By experimenting with various treatments and storage conditions, many distinct varieties of cheese were developed. The Romans are credited with inventing the cheese press, in an effort to perfect a way to drain the curds.

By the middle ages, monks became the creators and developers of cheese. They developed many of the cheeses we are familiar with today. They invented the ripening and ageing methods for cheese and were able to produce milder tasting cheeses. Many cheeses became known by the region they were produced in - Munster, Gorgonzola, Limburger . . .

During the Renaissance period, however, the popularity of cheese declined. It was believed to be unhealthy. But by the 19th century it became increasingly popular again when it began to be produced in factories, instead of farms.

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