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History of Cheese

by Albertina Roca   |   January 16, 2015   |  

The Origins of Le Fromage

Everybody loves cheese, but very few people know much about it. So many flavors, so many colors, even the smell can be overwhelming at times. We all know it is made from milk, and that it comes in many shapes and forms, flavors and textures. But cheese is so much more than a dairy product, it is an object d’art, a piece of human history, an heirloom passed down from antiquity. Throughout every generation, people have seen the craft of cheese making not only as a skill, but as an art form as well. It is an ancient food, which carries much history in its delicious pâte.

The Cheese is Born

The birth of cheese dates back all the way to 6000 BC in Mesopotamia, which is today Iraq. According to a myth, it was an accidental discovery by a mysterious Arab. To prepare for his journey through the desert, this Arab stored milk into a saddlebag, which was made out of the stomach of an animal. Midway through his trip, the man noticed that the milk had formed into curds and whey. Although the man did not know this then, this was due to the rennin, a coagulating enzyme released from the saddlebag. The heat of the desert sun and the rocking movement of his horse had caused the milk to separate into curds and whey. The Arab found it quite suitable for eating, and the rest is ancient history.

An Empire of Cheese

Many farmers found the method of converting milk into a solid as a useful way to store dairy. They allowed milk to curdle and would strike it with branches, later pressing it on stones and leaving it out to dry in the sun. The Greeks attributed its origins to the deity Aristaeus, son of Apollo, as a gift to the people. Cheese from the milk of goats and ewes was used in pastries, and served to soldiers and sailors during their long journeys across the land and sea.

By the end of the first century AD, technology had advanced to where cheese presses were invented to press the curd. The Romans discovered how to ripen the cheese to get a certain taste, and what conditions are needed in order to acquire a particular texture and aroma. The Holy Roman emperor Charlemagne discovered blue cheese on a trip through his country and popularized it throughout the Empire. The Roman Empire had much to do with the diversification and popularization of cheeses. The expanding Roman Empire brought to its conquered peoples these methods and techniques, which then got transformed and assimilated throughout the Empire. The decline and collapse of the Empire caused many of these cheese-making techniques to be forgotten and fall into disuse, to persevere only in relatively remote areas, such as the mountains and monasteries (thus the term ‘monastery’ cheese), where many cheeses are still produced today.

Thank you, brothers

The monks were master cheese makers, developing innovative and original cheeses that are still eaten today. The cheeses that most blossomed in this era were from France. Although considered a gourmet food today, cheese was a popular product throughout the countryside and villages, enjoyed by everyone from royalty to peasantry.

From Artisan to Industriel, and back again

The industrial revolution saw a heavy decline of traditional ‘artisanal’ methods of cheese making. Cheeses manufactured in factories were usually creamy and mild in taste, but widely available to the public, under the name of industriel cheese. By the 20th century, most cheeses were made in factories. Recent trends and demand for quality, not quantity, brought the comeback of the traditional cheese-making techniques, the fermier (farm-made) and artisan cheese, very labor-intensive, producing cheeses of high quality and delicate flavor.

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