Cheese in History

Posted on

Early cheese is believed to have been a practice of letting milk coagulate in sacks composed of the bladders from ruminants, due to the inherent supply of rennet within the organ.

A ruminant is a plant-digesting mammal with a multi-chambered stomach that softens food in the first chamber before regurgitating it and chewing it again. In fact, the name itself is derived from the Latin ruminare “to chew over again.” Rennet is produced organically in any mammalian stomach, and serves primarily as a milk digesting device.

The rennet within the walls of the bladder-sack would ferment and coagulate the milk, producing an item similar to yogurt. This would then have gone through a process of gentle agitation, serving to separate the curds from the liquid, and viola! Tiny lumps of cheese.

Prehistoric Cheese

The history of cheese is unique in that it has no traceable time of creation, supposedly predating recorded history; and despite there being no definitive proof indicating where cheese-making originated it is believed to have come from the Middle East, Central Asia, or Europe.

Before the coming of the Roman Empire cheese had already evolved into a complex business, fully becoming an everyday food and the creation itself an art-form amidst the beginnings of the empire. The process of curd pressing, salting, and cheese aging was spelled out in the work De Re Rustica (circa 65 CE), penned by Columella (whose works serve as our primary source of knowledge about Roman agriculture).

Romantic Cheeses

As Rome politely instructed newly conquered neighbors in the cheese-making ways of the Romans, the majority of Europe began to have a very diverse collection of cheeses due to the various villages crafting their own development procedures and products. This diversity in cheese-making can be found as well in manors and monasteries and, leaping forward to the present, has led to the British Cheese Board claiming there to be approximately 700 distinct cheese in today’s world.

Rewinding back to Roman times we find that the advancement of the fabled cheese-making art had stunted and, despite being a staple of commerce, was viewed as food of peasants. This thinking held throughout the Middle Ages, and it is in the Middle Ages we find the development of some of the most well known cheeses: Cheddar around 1500 CE, Parmesan in 1597, Gouda in 1697, and Camembert in 1791. Despite knowing the time-frames of their creation, it is impossible to know how much, if at all, they resemble the modern cheeses of the same names.

Say Cheese

While on the subject of modern cheese, the art of cheese-making was demoted to an assembly line production in 1815, in Switerzerland. However, large-scale production wasn’t introduced to the world until 1851, when the United States got into the game. In Rome, New York, a man named Jesse Williams begin to use the milk of farms near him, and within a few decades there were hundreds of these assembly-line associations.

By the turn of the century, cheese was being grown purely in microbial cultures due to the mass production of rennet in the 1860s, which allowed for a more controllable creation of cheese as the organic factor, the organic bacteria, had been removed.

This brings us to the modern market of today where factory-made cheese has replaced traditional since the WWII era, and more processed cheese is bought then ‘real’.