Yes, Sir, Cheese my Baby

Cheese at Neal’s Yard

Local cheeses at Neal’s Yard, one of London’s great cheese shops.

Clifton Fadiman described cheese as “Milk’s leap to immortality.” In a way, cheese has in turn immortalized other things—how many towns are known primarily because of the famous cheeses that come from them (Cheddar, England, for example, or Gouda, Holland)?

It probably won’t come as a surprise that cheese has been around for a long time. Cows, sheep, goats, yaks, and buffalo were being milked long before refrigeration was available. So cheese making, along with other forms of milk fermentation, from yoghurt to buttermilk, date back pretty much to the dawn of animal domestication, at least among cultures that consume milk.

It’s not really known when the first cheese was made, but evidence suggests a prehistoric genesis, with cheese well established by the time people began writing things down. Cave paintings in the Libyan Sahara from 5000 BC or earlier show what many scholars believe to be cheese making, and milk-curdling vessels dating to this same period have been found on the shore of Lake Neufchatel in Switzerland. Ancient Sumerian bas-reliefs from about 3500 BC show the milking of cows and curdling of milk. Actual remnants of cheese have been found in Egyptian tombs dating to around 3000 BC. And cheese is mentioned several times in the Old Testament.

Cheese making was probably somewhat haphazard until the happy discovery of rennet, a substance found in the stomachs of young mammals that causes milk to curdle, most likely discovered because cleaned animal stomachs made such useful bags for carrying milk (ah, the good old days). With rennet, cheese making became a lot easier and a lot more popular.

Cheese was a staple in ancient Greece and Rome. Apicius described dishes made with cheese (caseus in Latin) when recording the dining habits of Imperial Rome, and cheese appears in Homer’s Odyssey. By the time of the ancient Romans, the ripening process had been developed, and it was well known that flavor and other characteristics could be altered by varying treatment and storage conditions. Larger Roman houses even had a separate kitchen just for cheese, the caseale, as well as special areas where cheese could be matured. Homemade cheeses could be taken to special shops to be smoked.

While it was popular among the nobility, cheese was also generally included among the rations given to the legions of soldiers spreading out across the Empire. The Roman spread of caseus is somewhat traceable linguistically, with so many languages (even non-Romance languages) having words derived from the Latin: Spanish (queso), Portuguese (queijo), Dutch (kaas), German (käse), and English (cheese). (It is theorized that the aberrations, France’s fromage, Italy’s formaggio, and Catalonia’s formatge come from the names of molded, or formed, cheeses. This theory seems to be reinforced by the fact that in Spain, there is a mold used in making cheese called a formaje.)

By the time of Charlemagne’s reign (768–814), France was already developing fine fromages. By the beginning of the 1400s, Charles d’Orléans, father of Louis XII, was ordering Bries by the dozen to give as New Year presents.

In Italy, the Latin caseus lived on in family names in some regions, suggesting an unbroken line from the traditions of ancient Rome. Fontina, which in “patois” means “cheese,” appeared in the 1200s. It is mentioned by name in the first book about cheese, the Summa Lacticiniorum by Pantaleone da Confienza, which was published in 1477. Further evidence of the growing Italian cheese trade can be seen in a 1480 fresco of a cheese-maker’s shop at the castle of Issogne.

In Britain, Cheshire cheese is considered the oldest named cheese. It may actually trace its lineage to invading Romans, who made cheese in Cheshire. Cheshire cheese was mentioned in the Domesday Book at the end of 11th Century. Wensleydale (for all you fans of Wallace and Grommet) also possesses an ancient pedigree, with a recipe that can be traced back to the Cistercian monks who came to England with William the Conqueror in 1066. Cheddar cheese was being aged in the caves of Cheddar Gorge by the 1400s, though the earliest known reference to this cheese was made in 1170, when a purchase of more than 10,000 pounds of Cheddar cheese appeared in the expense account of Henry II.

Across the regions that would become Spain, Portugal, Switzerland, Germany, and the rest of Europe cheese making developed and was refined. It had the multiple benefits of being an easy way to store milk and a delightful way to survive fast days, when meat was forbidden.

At the beginning of the Middle Ages, cheese making was the work of everyone from monks to homemakers. Not only did towns have their own varieties, even individual farms had their own specialty cheeses. However, people began to appreciate the work-saving aspects of shared resources, and the first cooperative dairies were formed, with entire villages or even regions combining their milk and sharing the cheese. The first such cooperative recorded was in Déservilliers, France, in 1267.

Oddly enough, on the continent, cheese lost its exalted place in the culinary hierarchy during the Renaissance. Folks feared it was unhealthful. But fortunately, that foolishness didn’t last long, and by the 1800s, cheese was again in favor. Also during the 1800s, the world saw the beginning of the move from farm production to factories.

Not too surprisingly, cheese came to North America with European settlers, and cheese making was common in colonial households, particularly in New England, where cooler weather offered some possibility of preserving a cheese for a while. While most cheeses in the U.S. have traditionally been imitations of European cheeses, Brick, Jack, and Colby are American originals, dating to the late 1800s. But the cheeses that are recognized as the best in the U.S. are more commonly reflections, if not exact imitations, of older European cheeses. Interestingly, cheese making, and cheese consumption, did not spread throughout the Americas, and remains confined pretty much to North America. (Mexico is pretty much alone among Latin American countries in its love of cheese.)

So check out your local cheese shop or the cheese counter at a good store, and enjoy a wedge of cheese. It’s not just a good source of calcium and protein; it’s a piece of history.

[This story appeared in a slightly different form in Hungry Magazine]

©2008 Cynthia Clampitt

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Filed under culinary history, Food, History

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