The myriad cheeses displayed in our cheese cases signify thousands of years of discovery, technological advances, experimentation & finesse. Some of the earliest cheeses still present today include Cantal & Roquefort, both which date back to the 1st century AD.
From Accident to Aspiration
Various discoveries show that cheesemaking developed in different parts of the world with the most prehistoric signs found in ancient Sumerian & Mesopotamian cultures (7000 BC) & Egypt during the First Dynasty (ca. 3000-2800 BC). Pinpointing the birth of cheese is impossible because it predates recorded history.
Once people realized that animals could be milked, the concept of souring milk could not have been far behind. Milk would have been stored in wood, pottery & leather containers—vessels difficult to keep clean. Bacteria would have caused curds to form that then would have been separated from the whey resulting in a form of fresh cheese. While this may have been cheese’s earliest form, its flavor would have been tart & acidic.
One myth declares nomads in Central Asia used animal skins as saddlebags to carry milk. At some point, the stomach of a calf was used, which contains the enzyme rennin—the coagulating agent for cheese. When the travelers went to enjoy their quenching beverage they discovered it had become clumpy & hence cheese in its present-day state was “discovered.”
By 800 BC references of cheese in literature began to appear (the Iliad & Odyssey, for example). Over the ensuing centuries, cheese became more finessed as devices & techniques were created such as molds to shape wheels & pressing the curds to expel more whey. Cheese began to pervade Greek & Roman literature & by 50 AD the first cheesemaking book was written by Columella, a Roman food writer.
The Proliferation of Cheese
Throughout history, the detriment of invading armies, as one culture attempted to control another, often resulted in some form of amalgamation on both sides. Warriors from distant lands would bring their traditions & practices to conquered people & sometimes vice versa—those conquered would introduce culture to their new “masters.” Many of the things we know today were spread in this fashion & cheese is one of them.