The History of Cheesemaking


We may never know with certainty how cheese was first invented. Sometime at least 5,000 years ago some ancient affineur in Mesopotamia was either lucky or very innovative. At first, it was likely an accident that milk separated into curds (the solid part) and whey (the liquid part), and the curds then eaten or salted and preserved.

But the process really began in earnest with the arrival of the Romans. As their empire spread, they borrowed the local knowledge - as they had in so many places - and added to it. Larger Roman homes had entire rooms set aside for cheesemaking, developing it to a high art.

As the empire spread throughout Europe and the British Isles, so too did cheesemaking. Homer (circa 1184 BC) makes reference to cheeses made in the caves of Greece from sheep and goat's milk. Aristotle (384-322 BC) comments on the cheese made from the milk of mares and jackasses.

France, late to the game, but unparalleled in artistic invention, now produce over 300 types of cheese. In the Middle Ages, their output was much simpler, but even then the monks were becoming a center of creation. Gorgonzola saw its first appearance around 879 AD, Roquefort in 1070 AD.

The Italians weren't far behind, producing Parmesan (a kind of hard cheese) just prior to the end of the 16th century. Not for nothing is that city of the same name known as a center of wine and cheese.

The Swiss, when they were still known as the Helvetica tribes, developed their distinctive style using propionibacter shermani bacteria. It produces carbon dioxide bubbles, which causes the holes in Swiss cheese. The Netherlands developed Gouda around the end of the 17th century as cow's milk became the preferred source of cheese.

Even by this late date cheese was still very much a small craftsman's art. But with the coming of the Industrial Revolution it wasn't just steel and rails that began to be mass produced. The first plant for producing cheese on a large scale was founded in Switzerland in 1815. The U.S. got into the act in a big way not long after.

In 1851 a dairy farmer named Jesse Williams created an assembly line for making cheese on his farm in Rome, New York. Williams brought cheesemaking firmly into the modern age. Taking milk from hundreds of nearby farms, he produced cheese in abundance.

By the 1860s rennet came into widespread use. An enzyme from calves stomaches that helps speed the transformation of the milk into curds, it wasn't long before chemists manage to synthesize it. Today, especially since the ramp up from WWII, it is used the world over to produce huge quantities that are exported everywhere.

Though its history is ancient, the production of cheese - both industrial and as a personal craft - continues apace. There are more types to choose from than at any time in its 5,000 year lifespan.


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