The History of Cheese
March 20th, 2022
The history of food always unfolds in direct relation to the development of human societies. But the discovery of cheese, like that of wheat, is especially connected to the beginnings of civilization. In fact, cheese is almost as old as civilization itself. Cheese melted across the world from the Mediterranean to Southwest Detroit pizza, in a delicious journey that we’ll narrate for you.
There are several records evidencing the important presence of cheese in ancient times, from biblical references to Sumerian scriptures dating from 4,000 before the current era. Egyptian tomb murals from 2,300 BCE, Greek mythology, Turkish pottery fragments from the 7th millennium BCE, everybody said cheese. It came before weapons and even writing! In fact, some of the earliest known writing includes administrative records of cheese quotas for spiritual and culinary purposes in Mesopotamia.
Cheese is said to have been an accidental discovery in the dairy farms of the Neolithic people, between 8,000 to 10,000 years ago. A recent finding in Poland of a 7,500 year old cheese strainer supports this timeline. Farmers in the Fertile Crescent domesticated goats and sheep, from which they collected milk. It’s believed that the milk stored in containers made from the stomach of ruminant animals may have been forgotten over some time in warm conditions. Rennet, an enzyme that accelerates coagulation found in the stomach lining of sheep and other animals, possibly reacted causing the proteins in milk to bind into soft, sour clumps. Other theories suggest that cheese was a result of salting curdled milk or adding acidic fruit juices in search of preservation techniques. In any case, a delicious derivative of this elixir rich in fats and minerals was born, which not only would keep for much longer times, but also contained less lactose.
Legend goes that some Arabian traveler brought cheese to the European side of the Roman Empire, where the Romans loved it so much that they organized its mass production. Facts show that cheese had become a standard in maritime trade throughout the Eastern Mediterranean by the end of the Bronze Age, and was a staple in Mesopotamian gastronomy, thus its spread towards the empire’s capital simply makes sense. It would also make sense for cheese to have traveled across Asia. Although cheese isn’t a staple in Asian cuisine, Mongolians and Tibetans used yak milk to create equivalents of cheese, which may have inspired the Chinese to produce their rushan, a cheese dating from the times of the Ming Dynasty. In South Asia, Indian paneer was prepared by using acid from lemon juice, vinegar, or yogurt, similar to the method applied in ancient Neolithic farms.
Despite the fall of the Western Roman Empire, cheese continued to colonize Europe. It was scattered across Benedictian monasteries, where the monks perfectioned the cheesemaking practices by experimenting with different types of milk and aging processes. Thus feta appeared in Greece, gorgonzola in Sicily, roquefort in France and gruyere in the Swiss Alps. In the other direction, the Egyptians were making cottage cheese and the first pecorino cheeses were tasted in the Mediterranean. The clergymen continued to refine the production of cheese until the Industrial Revolution transposed cheesemaking to factories.
It was the Romans that introduced cheese to England, and they loved it so much that the English Pilgrims who traveled to North America in 1620 brought it along. In the 17th century, English Puritan dairy farmers settled in the Eastern colonies, and began the production of cheese. Americans loved it so much that it quickly began spreading towards the West. The Western region of Ohio was soon named Cheesedom, and most of the USA’s cheese of the time was manufactured there. Ohio’s production was closely followed by the state of New York, where in 1851 the first cheese factory was built. Before that, in the 1830’s there were significant cheese developments in Wisconsin as foreign immigrants from Germany, Norway and Switzerland coupled with eastern pioneers, officializing the manufacturing of farmstead cheese in the West. Back to the commercialization of cheese, between the late 1800’s and mid 1900’s, wholesale production of cheese expanded nationwide after the New Yorkers’ initiative.
On the way to Canada, where the record for the largest cheese is held since 1995, cheese settled in every pizza place Detroit, MI. You can now enjoy it at Paul’s Pizza, where cheese and wheat and tomatoes reunite after their long worldwide odysseys.