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A brie(f) history of cheese

Before empires and royalty, before pottery and writing, before metal tools and weapons – there was cheese.

By Betty-AnnPublished 9 months ago 3 min read
A brie(f) history of cheese
Photo by Andra C Taylor Jr on Unsplash

The Enduring Legacy of Cheese: A Culinary Journey Through History

Before empires and royalty, before pottery and writing, before metal tools and weapons – there was cheese. As early as 8000 BCE, the earliest Neolithic farmers living in the Fertile Crescent began a legacy of cheesemaking almost as old as civilization itself.

The rise of agriculture led to the domestication of sheep and goats, providing a source of milk. However, the early farmers faced a peculiar transformation of this fresh milk when left in warm conditions for several hours. Its lactic acids caused proteins to coagulate, forming soft clumps. This discovery marked the birth of cheese.

Upon noticing this fascinating metamorphosis, these ancient farmers drained the remaining liquid, later named whey. They found that the yellowish globs could be eaten fresh as a soft, spreadable meal. These clumps, or curds, became the building blocks of cheese, a culinary tradition that would evolve into a diverse array of dairy delights.

The discovery of cheese gave Neolithic people a significant survival advantage. Milk, rich in essential proteins, fats, and minerals, also contained high quantities of lactose, a sugar that is difficult to digest for many ancient and modern stomachs. Cheese, on the other hand, provided all the advantages of milk with much less lactose. Furthermore, cheese could be preserved and stockpiled, ensuring essential nutrients could be consumed during scarce famines and long winters.

By Xavier von Erlach on Unsplash

Pottery fragments dating back to the 7th millennium BCE in Turkey still contain residues of cheese and butter. By the end of the Bronze Age, cheese had become a standard commodity in maritime trade throughout the eastern Mediterranean. In the densely populated city-states of Mesopotamia, cheese became a staple of culinary and religious life. Some of the earliest known writings include administrative records of cheese quotas, listing various cheeses for different rituals and populations across Mesopotamia.

Records from nearby civilizations in Turkey also reference rennet, an animal byproduct produced in the stomachs of certain mammals, which can accelerate and control coagulation. This sophisticated cheesemaking tool eventually spread around the world, giving rise to a wide variety of new, harder cheeses.

By Alana Harris on Unsplash

Though some conservative food cultures rejected the dairy delicacy, many more embraced cheese and added their own local flavors. Nomadic Mongolians used yaks' milk to create hard, sun-dried wedges of Byaslag. Egyptians enjoyed goat's milk cottage cheese, straining the whey with reed mats. In South Asia, milk was coagulated with various food acids, such as lemon juice, vinegar, or yogurt, and then hung to dry into loaves of paneer. This soft, mild cheese could be added to curries and sauces or simply fried as a quick vegetarian dish.

The Greeks produced bricks of salty, brined feta cheese, alongside a harder variety similar to today's pecorino romano. This grating cheese was produced in Sicily and used in dishes all across the Mediterranean. Under Roman rule, "dry cheese" or "caseus aridus" became an essential ration for the nearly 500,000 soldiers guarding the vast borders of the Roman Empire.

By Sigmund on Unsplash

When the Western Roman Empire collapsed, cheesemaking continued to evolve in the manors that dotted the medieval European countryside. In the hundreds of Benedictine monasteries scattered across Europe, medieval monks experimented endlessly with different types of milk, cheesemaking practices, and aging processes that led to many of today's popular cheeses. Parmesan, Roquefort, Munster, and several Swiss types were all refined and perfected by these cheesemaking clergymen.

In the Alps, Swiss cheesemaking was particularly successful, producing a myriad of cow's milk cheeses. By the end of the 14th century, Alpine cheese from the Gruyere region of Switzerland had become so profitable that a neighboring state invaded the Gruyere highlands to take control of the growing cheese trade.

By Wyron A on Unsplash

Cheese remained popular through the Renaissance, and the Industrial Revolution took production out of the monastery and into machinery. Today, the world produces roughly 22 billion kilograms of cheese a year, shipped and consumed around the globe. But 10,000 years after its invention, local farms are still following in the footsteps of their Neolithic ancestors, handcrafting one of humanity's oldest and favorite foods.


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    Betty-AnnWritten by Betty-Ann

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