A brie(f) history of cheese – Paul Kindstedt

Before empires and royalty, before pottery and writing, before metal tools and weapons – there was cheese. As early as 8000 BCE, the earliest Neolithic farmers
living in the Fertile Crescent began a legacy of cheesemaking almost as old as civilization itself. The rise of agriculture led to
domesticated sheep and goats, which ancient farmers harvested for milk. But when left in warm conditions
for several hours, that fresh milk began to sour. Its lactic acids caused proteins to
coagulate, binding into soft clumps. Upon discovering this
strange transformation, the farmers drained the remaining liquid – later named whey – and found the yellowish globs could be
eaten fresh as a soft, spreadable meal. These clumps, or curds, became
the building blocks of cheese, which would eventually be aged, pressed,
ripened, and whizzed into a diverse cornucopia
of dairy delights. The discovery of cheese gave Neolithic
people an enormous survival advantage. Milk was rich with essential proteins,
fats, and minerals. But it also contained high
quantities of lactose – a sugar which is difficult to process for
many ancient and modern stomachs. Cheese, however, could provide all of
milk’s advantages with much less lactose. And since it could be preserved
and stockpiled, these essential nutrients could be eaten throughout scarce famines
and long winters. Some 7th millennium BCE pottery fragments
found in Turkey still contain telltale residues of
the cheese and butter they held. By the end of the Bronze Age, cheese was a standard commodity
in maritime trade throughout the eastern Mediterranean. In the densely populated city-states of
Mesopotamia, cheese became a staple
of culinary and religious life. Some of the earliest known writing includes administrative records
of cheese quotas, listing a variety of cheeses for different
rituals and populations across Mesopotamia. Records from nearby civilizations
in Turkey also reference rennet. This animal byproduct, produced in the
stomachs of certain mammals, can accelerate and control coagulation. Eventually this sophisticated cheesemaking
tool spread around the globe, giving way to a wide variety of new,
harder cheeses. And though some conservative food
cultures rejected the dairy delicacy, many more embraced cheese, and quickly
added their own local flavors. Nomadic Mongolians used yaks’ milk to
create hard, sundried wedges of Byaslag. Egyptians enjoyed goats’ milk cottage
cheese, straining the whey with reed mats. In South Asia, milk was coagulated with a
variety of food acids, such as lemon juice, vinegar, or yogurt and then hung to dry into loafs of paneer. This soft mild cheese could be added to
curries and sauces, or simply fried as a
quick vegetarian dish. The Greeks produced bricks of salty brined
feta cheese, alongside a harder variety similar to
today’s pecorino romano. This grating cheese was produced in Sicily and used in dishes all across the
Mediterranean. Under Roman rule, “dry cheese”
or “caseus aridus,” became an essential ration for the nearly 500,000 soldiers guarding
the vast borders of the Roman Empire. And when the Western Roman
Empire collapsed, cheesemaking continued to evolve in the manors that dotted the medieval
European countryside. In the hundreds of Benedictine monasteries
scattered across Europe, medieval monks experimented endlessly
with different types of milk, cheesemaking practices, and aging processes that led to many
of today’s popular cheeses. Parmesan, Roquefort, Munster
and several Swiss types were all refined and perfected
by these cheesemaking clergymen. In the Alps, Swiss cheesemaking was
particularly successful – producing a myriad of cow’s milk cheeses. By the end of the 14th century, Alpine cheese from the Gruyere region of
Switzerland had become so profitable that a neighboring state invaded the
Gruyere highlands to take control of the growing
cheese trade. Cheese remained popular through
the Renaissance, and the Industrial Revolution took
production out of the monastery and into machinery. Today, the world produces roughly
22 billion kilograms of cheese a year, shipped and consumed around the globe. But 10,000 years after its invention, local farms are still following in the
footsteps of their Neolithic ancestors, hand crafting one of humanity’s
oldest and favorite foods.

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