Cheesemaking skills may have been one of the first agricultural developments of modern human civilization. Cheese is such an ancient food that it is older than our recorded history. We do know that the Romans thought of this product as a significant component of their economy.
The earliest evidence to date of formal cheesemaking processes is about 7,500 years old. Archaeologists discovered strainers with milk-fat molecules on them in Poland suggesting that humans had found out ways to separate curds from the whey.
Although we have over 1,600 different varieties of just French cheese to make today, our ancestors had something very different. The earliest products made were likely salty and sour, probably similar to fresh feta or cottage cheese in texture.
As the techniques to make cheese spread to the north, cheesemakers likely discovered that less salt was necessary to cure the product. With less sodium needed, more molds and acidity got introduced to this food, leading to new varieties.
How Did We Discover Cheese?
The stories of how humans discovered cheese are filled with fanciful delights. You can see several variations of a traveler, desperate to maintain his supplies (because women didn’t travel then?), filling an animal’s stomach with leftover milk.
The rennet contained in the organ causes the curds and whey to separate as he bounces along the trail on his horse. When the traveler gets thirsty, he pulls out the stomach to take a drink – only to find cheese waiting for him instead of milk.
It is more likely that our ancient ancestors had milk spoil. When it turned into sour chunkiness, someone thought that maybe a better way to create the same result was possible. After a few attempts, the first soft cheese products began getting created.
Most families passed their recipes to the next generation by telling stories or showing the kids what to do. That process likely continued until the Egyptians created the first structured government and economy we’d classify as “modern.”
The Transition to the Dark Ages
After Rome got sacked in the year 455, the Roman Empire split apart into a series of warlords and minor kingdoms. This structure would set the stage for modern Europe, but it would be 900 years of losing knowledge before picking up where we left off.
Although the Dark Ages are more of a tale than reality because of the negative connotations found in the written records of the time, we did lose significant knowledge. Romans made concrete, taught people how to read, and had a veritable cheese empire. All of that disappeared.
When religion took over the Roman Empire, it lessened the influence of science. Do you remember the story of Galileo? Similar incidents happened for the families who kept up their cheesemaking skills.
It is during this time that the Arabic world took over the development of science. That is why many of the ancient cheesemaking stories talk about a traveler from this region.
The Renaissance Was More Than Artistic
When the Renaissance period developed in Europe, it was like a great awakening of the mind. Many of the world’s greatest artists, from a modern perspective, came from this time.
It was also when we began the process of developing some of the most popular varieties of cheese.
We started making cheddar at the beginning of the 16th century. Parmesan got introduced to the public around the start of the 18th century.
All of the different cultures that split apart at the end of the Roman Empire began to experiment with their own flavors and varieties.
When Europeans began to explore the rest of the world, several reports from the conquistadors suggest that South American societies were making cheese from llama milk.
It wouldn’t be until 1815 when the first industrial cheese factory opened in Switzerland that large-scale production would start happening. By 1851, assembly-line cheese was getting made at the local level to create regional specialties. That’s when the first dairy associations began forming.
Scientists started using pure microbial cultures by the turn of the 20th century, creating an entirely new segment of cheese to explore. As it got cheaper to make, people with less money could start using it as an essential food. Until refrigerators got invented in 1913, ceramic cheese dishes, bells, and other shapes became popular to use.
Cheesemaking in Today’s World
Factory-made cheese took over the traditional cheesemaking processes after the 1940s. These companies sought out ways to create more profitable products, leading to the development of processed cheese.
Several parts of the world consume more processed than real cheese each day. This version of mass-produced cheese is usually about 50% other ingredients, including dyes, emulsifiers, other dairy products, and artificial ingredients.
That’s why the movement to start making cheese at home is rising in popularity once again. When you know what is in the foods you eat, it is easier to make healthy choices.
It may take a little more money and time to make cheese at home, but the work is fulfilling and fun. Cheesemaking can still be a family tradition!