Was the invention of cheese an accident? A gift from Aristaios son of the Greek god Apollo? Or the discovery of an ancient Arab travelling through Mesopotamia?
There could easily be as many legends about the origins of cheese as there are varieties. Perhaps because we cannot know for certain when the first cheese was actually made. According to experts, it may have happened in the Middle East, sometime around 7000 BC. It was during this Neolithic period that humans began to breed livestock. They also discovered domesticated animals could be milked.
It’s likely the earliest type of cheese was a form of sour milk, a simple result of the observation that milk left in a container turned solid, especially in hot temperatures. However, a widely told legend has it that cheese was the accidental discovery of a travelling Arab nomad. To sustain himself on a long journey across the desert, the nomad filled a sheep’s stomach saddlebag with milk and tied it to his horse. After several hours of galloping in the hot sun, he stopped to quench his thirst, only to find the milk had turned into solid white lumps. Weary, hungry, and curious, the nomad found the curds and whey to be edible – and we’re assuming quite delicious as well.
Legend and speculation aside, archaeologists have found solid evidence of cheese making traditions tracing back as far as 6000 BC, when cow and goat’s milk cheeses were stored in tall jars. In Switzerland, milk-curdling vessels dating to 5000 BC have been dug up on the shores of Lake Neufchatel. In ancient Babylonia, Sumerian bas-reliefs from 3500 BC depict the milking and curdling of cow’s milk. And in Egypt, tomb murals from 2000 BC show butter and cheese made and stored in skin bags suspended from poles.
We also have evidence of early cheese making from its mention in many ancient and classic texts. In the Bible, Old Testament scriptures tell us when David escaped across the River Jordan, he was fed with “cheese of kine” (cow). It is also written that David was asked to bring “ten cheeses” to the commander of his brothers’ unit in the battle against the Philistines. In Homer’s Odyssey, the 8th century BC poet writes of the Cyclops Polyphemus, whose baskets were “always full of cheese, even in the coldest winter.” Cheese was also noted in the texts of Aristotle, Pythagoras, and Varro.
By 50 AD, the writings of Columella explained cheese making in great detail, clearly showing the impressive developments of cheese methodology in the Roman era. During this time, the Romans invented the cheese press to perfect the curd-draining process. They also developed the ripening process, discovering various treatments and conditions produced cheeses with different flavours and characteristics.
Cheese making advanced to become a high art of knowledge and skill, with a rich Roman cheese market selling more than 13 varieties with distinct aromas, flavours and spices. Larger Roman homes even had special cheese kitchens (caseales) and areas for cheese to be matured. And while cheese was at first considered a luxury food for nobility, it eventually became a staple for the masses.
The Middle Ages
By 300 AD, cheese trade and export was well underway along the Mediterranean seaboard, and the Roman’s cheese making expertise spread throughout Europe. However, after the fall of the Empire (around 410 AD) and throughout the Dark Ages, little progress was made in further developing cheese.
Luckily for us cheese lovers, monks in European monasteries revived the practice of cheese making during the Middle Ages. As true researchers and innovators, the monks greatly improved cheese ripening and ageing techniques. They are credited with developing milder tasting cheeses like Brie and Camembert, as well as many classic varieties we still enjoy today.
Cheese Becomes an Industry
From the Middle Ages on, we can see how cheese making grew to become an industry. In the Jura and Alps, mountain farmers formed communities of dairy associations to share knowledge about crafting the best quality cheeses. And by the 7th century, famous varieties like Munster and Gorgonzola came to be known by the regions where they were produced.
In the 13th century, entire villages and regions came to recognise the benefits of pooling their milk and labour and many cooperative dairies were formed. The first recorded cooperative came together in Déservilliers, France in 1267, and later in the 16th century, cooperatives created many other classic cheeses, like Gruyère and Emmental.
Interestingly enough, cheese saw a drop in popularity during the Renaissance, a time when it was considered unhealthy. By the 19th century, however, cheese regained its favour and production moved from the farm to the factory. Today, there are more than 700 different cheeses produced in Britain alone, and as a country, we consume about 640,000 tonnes of it per year.