Body of Knowledge: Introduction

Definition & History

Clifton Fadiman called cheese “milk’s leap to immortality.”

For many of us who work with cheese on a professional basis, cheese is our inspiration, the nourishment of not only our bodies but of our spirit and imagination.  It enriches our tables and our lives.  Cheese has been a foodstuff for mankind since the dawn of civilization.

But before reflecting on the noble history of cheese, we should first be clear what we are talking about…

The Oxford English Dictionary defines milk as:

An opaque white or bluish-white fluid secreted by the mammary glands of the female individuals of the mammalian family, and adapted for the nourishment of their young.

For a greater discussion of milk, see Domain One, Raw Materials for Cheesemaking.

The same source defines cheese as:

A substance used as food, consisting of the curd of milk (coagulated by rennet) separated from the whey and pressed into a solid mass.

For a greater discussion of cheese, see Domain Two, Cheese Making Processes and Domain Four, Cheese Categories and Types.

A Little Cheese History

We really don’t know when or where cheese actually originated, but archaeological surveys indicate that cheese was made from both cow’s milk and goats milk in the area located between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in what is now from Iraq between 7000 and 6000 B.C. We also know that nomads had domesticated sheep and goats by 5000 B.C.

Most likely the first cheeses were made by souring or clabbering milk and then draining the whey from the curds using baskets.  It is also likely that some ancient traveler discovered that when carrying milk across the desert in a bag made from a sheep or goat’s stomach it became another substance all together—cheese.  As the milk heated in the sun, the rennet in the stomach lining caused the milk to coagulate, and the bouncing up and down caused the curds and whey to separate.  Later that evening the traveler found that the whey quenched his thirst and the curds satisfied his hunger.

Voila—another cheesemaking method was born, and by 3000 B.C. about twenty different types of cheese are described in ancient Sumerian writings.  Archeologically, the oldest known cheese was found in an earthenware pot in the Egyptian tomb of King Horaha dating back to 2300 B.C.  Amazingly, the cheese had been stored in an earthenware pot of the same type that is still used today to separate the curds for the soft Egyptian cheese called Mish.

As years passed cheese was made from the milk of goats, sheep, cows, mares, water buffaloes, and yaks in many different regions of the world. Travelers from Asia are thought to have brought the art of cheesemaking to Europe.  During Roman and Greek times, cheese was popular in the more southern countries where milk would have spoiled because of the hotter climates, while butter and milk were a more important component of the diet in northern European and Asian countries.  Cheese was so much a part of everyday life that it is mentioned in The Iliad and The Odyssey.

It was not until the time of the Roman Empire that cheese ripening processes were perfected with skill and high standards.  These cheeses with various flavors and characteristics were then served on the tables of the nobility.  Larger houses even had separate cheese kitchens called caseale.  Roman soldiers received rations of cheese, and it was an integral part of their diet.  As the Empire expanded, cheesemaking was introduced to the conquered regions.  Soon a cheese trade flourished, and cheeses were brought to Rome from Switzerland, France, and England as well as other parts of the Empire

The origins of much cheese we enjoy today date back centuries.  Pliny, the great naturalist historian, mentioned Sbrinz and Bleu d’Auvergne in his writings, and Charlemagne is said to have enjoyed Brie and Roquefort in the ninth century.  Gorgonzola can be traced back to 879 in the Po region of Italy, Roquefort was mentioned in monastery records that date to 1070, and in the fourteenth century Boccaccio wrote of Parmigianino in his Decameron.  During the Middles Ages cheesemaking was largely kept alive on large estates and in monasteries, and the secrets of cheesemaking were passed from generation to generation. Cheeses such as Pont  l’Evêque and Munster, which became an important part of their diets, were developed at this time.  Cheddar, Stilton, and Cheshire well known in England in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and were regularly shipped abroad.  Gruyère is said to have been made in Switzerland since the twelfth century, where the age and quantity of cheese in the family cellar was an indication of prosperity. Cheese was even used as currency in Switzerland as well as in Scandinavia.

In Europe, there are laws dictating that many traditional cheeses must be made in specific regions, using specific milks, and according to specific techniques.  In France this is known as fromage appellation d’origine controlee (AOC), which is similar to the rules controlling wine.  The same holds true for Italian cheeses such as Parmigiano-Reggiano.  Even the names of some cheeses, like Stilton, have even been copyrighted and have their own certification trademark.   Cheese is serious business!

From the Middle Ages until the eighteenth century, much of the dairying and cheesemaking was handmade by women.  Europeans brought these traditions to the Americas in the seventeenth century. Cheese was included in the ship’s supplies when the Pilgrims sailed on the Mayflower in 1620.  European emigrations led to the development of cheesemaking in countries from Canada to Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa because the Europeans missed their cheeses from home.

The first American cheese factory was established in New York State in 1850, and by 1865 there were at least five hundred cheese and butter plants in that state alone.  The United States was fast on its way to becoming a cheese capital.  During this period the largest cheese market in the world was located in Little Falls, New York, where cheeses from more than two hundred factories were sold. Population increases in the East soon forced dairy farms to move westward.  Around the beginning of the twentieth century Wisconsin became the center for dairying and cheesemaking in the United States.

Originally cheeses were made with natural airborne bacteria working together with the natural bacteria in the raw milk.  In those years cheesemaking was considered more of an art.  Accidental modifications or changes resulted in the development of various cheeses.  Pasteurization, introduced in the 1850s allowed large-scale cheese production to advance, as did economic and industrial advances in the latter years of the nineteenth century.  With increased scientific knowledge, cheesemaking began to move from being an art to being a science so that a more uniform product could be produced.  By the beginning of the 20th century bacterial cultures had been developed for cheesemaking.  Cheese production increased as transportation and distribution systems developed and evolved.  Today the United States is the largest producer of cheese in the world, and Cheddar and cheddar-based cheeses account for the major portion of all the cheeses produced in this country.

In the past cheeses were a very regional product, today cheese knows few national boundaries.  Cheddar and Gouda are made in South Africa, Brie is made in Wisconsin, and buffalo Mozzarella is produced in Venezuela and Columbia.  The world of cheesemaking has become very amorphous.  Most cheese is produced in gigantic cheese factories in North America as well as in Europe, South America, Australia, and New Zealand.  Although the majority of European cheeses that are available in stores in the United States are made in large-scale factories, very special regional and hand-crafted cheeses are also imported on a small scale and sold in specialty stores across the country.

In recent years we have seen a resurgence of small-scale and farmhouse cheesemaking operations in the United States.  It began with the Back to Nature movement of the 1960s and 1970s.  By the late 1970s and early 1980s a handful of specialty cheesemaking operations had begun to flourish.  In the 1980s European cheese plants came to the United States and established branches.  Because these American-made European-style cheeses were made on a larger scale and distributed more widely, they fueled the availability and appreciation of specialty cheeses. The growth has been steady.  Standards of quality have risen dramatically.

Today there are hundreds of small-scale specialty and artisanal cheese factories in nearly every state of the United States, as well as in Canada, England, Ireland, Argentina, Australia, and New Zealand.  Most of these cheeses are regional and produced in limited quantities.  Some are farmstead, which means that the cheese is made on the farms where at least 50 percent of the milk is produced.  Others are specialty cheeses which are made in limited quantities with locally purchased milk.  It’s a cheese explosion!

“A Little History of Cheese” reproduced with permission from Paula Lambert’s book  Cheese Lover’s Cookbook and Guide,  published by Simon and Schuster in 2000. ©Copyright Paula Lambert, 2000.