"Milk's Leap Towards Immortality:" The History of Cheese
EMG Cheese Notes
In this latest episode of Eat My Globe, our host, Simon Majumdar, discusses the History of Cheese. He will trace the journey of how this fermented milk product became one of the world’s favorite dining staples – from the Neolithic era, to Classical Greece, to the Roman Empire, to the Pilgrims on the Mayflower and to your table.
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EAT MY GLOBE: THINGS YOU DIDN’T KNOW YOU DIDN’T KNOW ABOUT FOOD
“Milk's Leap Toward's Immortality”: The History of Cheese
Hi Everybody… Oh. [coughs] Oh I say it differently. [Indecipherable] I’d do that again. A bit quick. Oh no. Before. [Indecipherable] [Barking]. Okay.
SHOW INTRO MUSIC
Hi everybody and welcome to the latest episode of EAT MY GLOBE. A podcast about Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know About Food.
And, on this week’s episode we are going to look at one of my most beloved food groups. One that is available in well over a thousand different varieties, that has a history that stretches back to human’s first domestication of animals, that was prized by the Romans, remains beloved by most Europeans and is currently undergoing a significant craft revival in the United States. I am of course talking about…
Back in the early aughts, I once posted a thread on a food chat site with the title: “The United States- Where Good Cheese Goes to Die.”
It was a harsh, but accurate title that reflected a situation in the United States of America where cheese offerings, on the whole, consisted of rather tired imports from Europe or their copies, or rather limited varieties.
Move on nearly twenty years and there is no way I would be able to post the same title without coming under rightful criticism, as America is now experiencing a genuine renaissance of artisanal cheesemaking and is now able to offer many, many home grown cheeses that are as good as any I have tasted around the globe.
This was evidenced by my 2013 visit to the American Cheese Society’s “Festival of Cheese” in Madison, Wisconsin as part of the research for my book “Fed, White, and Blue.” There was a display featuring almost 2000 cheeses of American origin. A marked improvement from when it only had 89 entrants in 1985.
I offer this as evidence that cheese is now even more popular than ever, and not just in the United States, but around the world, even in markets of South East Asia, where traditionally cuisines have stayed away from dairy and related products.
Before we go any further, I think it is worth doing what I often do at the beginning of a podcast and define exactly what it is we are talking about, so that there is no confusion.
The Oxford Living Dictionaries define cheese as being,
Quote “A food made of the pressed curds of milk, Firm and elastic, or soft and semi liquid in texture.” End quote.
That’s obviously a very wide definition and helps explain in part why it’s almost impossible to give an exact number to the varieties of cheese that are produced around the globe. Great Britain, for example, produces the widest variety of cheese of any nation on earth, at around 750. That’s nearly double the amount of varieties produced in France. However, the Danes consume a lot of cheese, ranking #1 in the world per capita at around 28.1 kilograms -- or almost 62 pounds -- per person. And, as of 2014, it is here in the United States that we produce more cheese than anyone else in the world at 12.7 billion pounds. The majority of cheeses made in the United States as of 2017 come from the state of Wisconsin.
So, what are the origins of this beloved product? And, how did it get from there to the point where it is now produced and consumed by the millions of tones by people all over the globe?
Well, for that, we have to turn to the Neolithic period that existed between 10,000 BCE and around 3,000 BCE and formed the era in human development when there was a move from a nomadic existence predicated on the hunting of wild animals to one where animals became domesticated and crops began to be farmed and we see some of the earliest examples of human settlements.
In his 1981 book “Plough and Pastoralism: Aspects of the Secondary Product Revolution” archaeologist Andrew Sherratt offered up the concept of Secondary Products revolution. He argued that while the domestication of animals may have happened for the primary reason, i.e. to provide a readily supply of meat, early settlers soon realized that the domestication of animals also brought with it other mainly positive consequences that had benefit. And, while the raising of animals for meat was a “one and done” situation – once the animal was killed it was obviously of no further purpose – these other consequences offered other potentially repeatable uses of the same animal. These included such notions as using animals to pull ploughs, to provide wool -- and hides, once the animal was killed -- to provide tools -- from bones and horns -- and, for the purposes of our story, to provide milk.
All of this occurred long before recorded history, there is obviously no way of knowing exactly when someone first began to recognize the benefits of milk. However, we do know from a process called “lipid analysis” -- which recognizes the fats absorbed into clay pottery, allowing scientists to make educated interpretations of what substances the pots held -- that milk was being collected and used in the region that is now the Central Balkans and Romania around 7,500 years ago within the Linearbandkeramik culture.
However, there was one significant barrier to milk becoming a regular part of the human diet at this period, and that was the fact that for most of human history, people have lacked the ability to tolerate the lactose in milk very soon after its needs in infancy are met. In fact, even today, about two thirds of the world’s population still do not produce the enzyme lactase, which helps break down the sugars in milk, a situation that can produce considerable discomfort if someone finds themselves consuming dairy products. This is likely in part the reason why dairy products rarely form part of Southeast Asian cuisines.
The people of the first milk consuming regions overcame this intolerance through the natural development over time of lactase in the system in a process known as, quote, “lactase persistence,” end quote, which scientists believe happened as dairy making evolved and milk became easier to digest once consumed.
Again, we know this through Lipid Analysis, which shows us that Neolithic populations were beginning to create dairy products that included yogurt and cheese. Fermenting breaks down the lactose in milk, and in cheesemaking, the separation of the curds and whey -- where about half of the carbohydrates in whey concentrate contains most of the lactose sugars -- made the end product more palatable.
Once again, it’s impossible to give a clear big bang point to the creation of the first cheese. And, most of these theories relate to an “accidental” discovery of the cheese making process, as an Arab trader stored milk in pouches made of animal stomachs, which contained natural rennet, and combined with heat as he rode, causing the milk to split into whey and solids.
Archaeological research has found clay sieves from the region that is now Poland – they are believed to be the earliest discovered tools used in cheese making. And, in 2010, an archaeological dig discovered, quote, “solidified whitish mass,” end quote, inside a jar in the tomb of Ptahmes, a high-ranking Egyptian official, that could be the oldest residue of cheese ever identified.
As well as its age, there were two other fascinating facts about the discovery of this cheese. The first was that it was made of a combination of sheep and goat’s milk, which suggests that sheep, goat and cattle were one of the first animals to be domesticated. The second was that the sample also contained a bacteria from an infection called brucellosis, a disease caused by unpasteurized dairy and is the oldest example of that disease on record.
In the ancient world, trade records made by the Hittites dating as far back as 1200 B.C.E. included shipments of cheese, which is likely the first evidence that people at the time developed technology to ensure that cheese survived the rigors of long distance travel by sea.
In Ancient Greece, the art of cheesemaking was considered a gift from the gods, which had been bestowed on humanity by the god, Aristaeus, who in turn had been taught the art by nymphs. And, in Homer’s epic poem, The Odyssey, Odysseus enters the cave of the Cyclops, Polyphemus, to find it laden with cheese and other provisions. The cheese described was probably a forerunner of the briny Feta cheese we still eat today.
We don’t know who actually gave us the name of cheese. But, the Latin word for Cheese -- “Caseus,” – is thought to be Oscan or Umbrian in origin and which scholars believe was borrowed by ancient Romans from their neighbors. Caseus has found its way down to us in Old English as “cēse.” Cheese can also be seen in the Italian roots word -- “Cacio” – and the Spanish word “Queso.” And, like the Greeks, the Romans took their cheese and cheese making very seriously indeed.
In Chapter 97 of his work, “The Natural History,” Pliny the Elder offers a list of where the best cheese comes from and by first saying that:
“The kinds of cheese that are most esteemed at Rome, where the various good things of all nations are to be judged by comparison.”
Which is a very early example of city boosterism. Are you listening, New York? I kid, I kid.
In this list, Pliny offers up cheeses from around the empire including fresh milk cheese from Ne-mausus – located in present day Nimes in France, salty cheeses from “beyond the sea” in Bythinia, vast cheeses from Liguria where a single cheese could weigh over a thousand pounds, cheeses from what are now the Swiss alps, and even cheeses made in Rome itself, out of goats milk.
The breadth of the list and the detailed descriptions Pliny gives them and their locations serve to confirm that cheese making by this period was a very sophisticated business with a very well-developed structure of import and export across the Roman Empire and beyond. It also confirms the beginnings of what we might today call a “designated origin” criteria being given to cheeses of note, indicating that particular areas were recognized for a particular style of cheese, rather than just for the basic “farm cheeses” that had preceded them.
One of the real joys of researching this series of podcasts is encountering individuals whose names may be forgotten, outside of academic circles, but whose contribution to the food we eat today is not to be dismissed. The history of cheese provides another perfect example in the form of Lucius Junius Moderatus Columella.
Columella was born in Gades or present day Cadiz, Spain -- in the 1st Century CE, and moved to Italy where, after military service, he began to follow his passion for a simpler life and began farming on land near Rome. None of this would be particularly remarkable, but for the fact that Columella began to write some of the most comprehensive works on agriculture and husbandry in his two major works, the twelve volume De Re Rustica -- On Agriculture -- and De Arboribus -- On Trees.
These works not only give us a fascinating insight into the agriculture in the Roman Empire, but also for the purposes of our story, offer up in Book VII, section 8, a real insight into the early cheese making practices and the types of textures and flavors that were most pleasing to the Roman palate.
It’s definitely worth seeking out a translation of Columella’s work, particularly as you will see that the process of making cheese -- very little changed in the 2000 intervening years, with milk being separated into curds and whey and then pressed under weights before being stored in a cool place to avoid spoilage. He talks about how whey should be separated from the curds as soon as possible to avoid making too acidic a cheese, how long they should be pressed for, whether they should be brined or salted, what ingredients could be added to flavor the cheese, and even if they would benefit from being smoked.
For those amongst you who are vegetarian, you will be pleased to know that Columella even offers up suggestions for curdling the milk using non-animal products by suggesting the use of thistles, safflower seeds or fig tree sap.
We’ve already seen that according to Pliny the Elder, some of the most esteemed cheeses in the Roman Empire were coming from the region that is today’s France. So, I think it’s worth spending some time looking at how the cheese industry -- for want of a better word -- began to spread to some of its most famous locations around the world and how some of our most famous cheeses came into being.
In Europe, in the post-Roman world -- the period known as The Middle Ages -- cheese production flourished. It was also a period when we began to see the emergence of religious institutions -- such as monasteries and convents -- who began to produce cheeses of their own, not only as an activity to prevent idleness, but also to sell to raise funds.
These cheeses that were made in these locations tended to be semi-soft cow’s milk cheeses and often washed in beer or wine, which were other lucrative productions for the institutions.
From this tradition we can see the origins of some of the most famous cheeses in the world. The Alsatian cheese, Münster -- not to be confused with its American cousin Muenster -- actually takes its name from the Latin word for Monastarium, which means monastery, and the delicious and runny Epoisses was created in the Cistercian monastery in the town of the same name.
Outside of France, we have many cheeses that have become famous through the world in the last 500 years or so. One of the most famous and widely consumed is Cheddar.
[Simon advertises the wonderful podcast, Culinary Medicine, by Dr. Terry Simpson]
Although you can find Cheddar of varying qualities in just about every cheese section of every supermarket around the globe, the original Cheddar takes its name from a small town in the West of my homeland of Great Britain. This area was known for its gorges and caves, which kept a constant temperature and proved highly suitable for storing and aging the hard cheeses made in the area. In the Middle ages, Cheddar cheese was made within 30 miles of the cathedral in the small city of Wells to bear the name.
The sharp taste and crumbly texture of a true cheddar proved to be a hit with the rich and royalty. In 1170, one of the “Great Rolls of the Pipe” -- the records of exchanges of the treasury and named because of the shape of the rolled parchment -- of Henry II listed a purchase of some 10,000 pounds of Cheddar for the court at a farthing a pound, and declared it the best cheese in England. While later, the ill-fated King Charles I was said to have pre-ordered his Cheddar cheeses by the entire wheel. Even later, someone gave Queen Victoria a thousand pound giant Cheddar wheel as a wedding gift.
Although the name of Cheddar cheese and its origins relates to this small area of Great Britain, Cheddars are also made around the world. I have sampled Cheddars made in the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand to name a few. One of the reasons that they are able to make a cheese and call it by this name is that by the time the European Union’s PDO or Protected Designation of Origin system came into being, Cheddars bearing the Cheddar name had become commonplace, and were already being prepared all around the world and enforcement would have been impossible. The other reason is, that as well as being a place, Cheddar is also a process of cheese making and so that any cheeses made using this method can also carry the name.
The “Cheddaring” process involves the curds of cheese being cut into very small pieces and then formed into slabs which are stored one on top of another to help drain the whey and to stretch the curd. This process is continued to expel as much whey from the cheese as possible which gives Cheddar the delicious and crumbly, dense texture that has made it one of the most popular of all cheeses.
In recent years there have been attempts to reconnect Cheddar with its original home. A PDO has been granted for “West Country Farmhouse Cheddars” to highlight cheeses made in the region by traditional methods. And, the Slow Food Movement has promoted three cheesemakers in Somerset who also make Cheddar in the traditional fashion.
Italy produces over 450 varieties of cheese. However, when one speaks of Italian cheese, the two that possibly come to mind first are Mozzarella and Parmigiano–Reggiano. Mozzarella takes its name from the word “mozzare” which means to cut off, and refers to the method of creating cheese by forming small balls. It is a soft milk cheese that originated in Italy and can be made of milk from cow or water buffalo. However, perhaps the most famous variety is the Mozzarella di Bufala Campana, which is made from milk provided by domesticated water buffalo and comes from the region of Campania.
The first mention of Mozzarella as a style of cheese comes in a cookbook written by another one of food history’s great characters, Bartolomeo Scappi. Scappi – who was born in 1500 and died in 1577 -- was a renaissance author and a cook who not only cooked for six -- yep, count them – six popes, but was also working at the Vatican at the same time as Michelangelo decided to add a bit of paint to the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
In 1570, he published his masterwork “Opera di M. Bartolomeo Scappi, Cuoco Secreto di Papa Pio V” or for you and me, “The Book of Bartolomo Scappi Cooking Secrets. The work was split into six books which covered everything from how to determine the quality of ingredients, to preparing meals for holidays, including Lent, recipes for convalescents, recipes for desserts -- including a recipe for flaky pastry -- and as I mentioned the first mention of Mozzarella. In a recipe for pasta, he describes covering macaroni with butter, sugar and provatura, a type of mozzarella. And, in describing what is served on a “sideboard” or buffet table, Scappi says;
“in spring, summer and fall, milk curds, cream tops, fresh butter, ewe’s milk curd cheese, fresh mozzarella, milk snow.”
The best Mozzarella cheese is eaten soon after it is made. In a process known as the pasta filata or spun pasta, where milk is incubated with a whey starter and then rennet is added to form curds which, when heated in water and after mixing and kneading, form strings which can be stretched out and molded to form the balls of cheese with which we are so familiar.
In 1998, Mozzarella received a TSG, which is short for traditional specialities guaranteed, from the European Union. While this protects the way the cheese is made, it does not specify from what milk it should be made, and the majority of Mozzarella purchased today is made from cow’s milk. However, I think, if you really want to find out what makes this cheese one of the world’s finest, you should definitely seek out a Mozzarella di Bufala Campana sprinkle it with a little salt, drizzle with a little olive oil and eat it with a slice of crunchy bread. Perfection.
As for Parmigiano–Reggiano, it has been declared by many to be the “King of Cheese” and has been made in the same way for nearly 1,000 years and in, as the name suggests, the “Reggiano” region of Italy. While you might find cheeses labelled “Parmesan” made in other parts of the world, the genuine article is now protected by a PDO, which is short for Protected Denomination of Origin, by the European Union and its manufacture is controlled by the fearsome sounding Consorzio del Parmigiano Reggiano or the Consortium for Parmesan from Reggiano.
While there are records of rather similar cheeses being made back into ancient times, one of the earliest written mentions of the cheese comes from a notarized document, dated 1254, found in Genoa where the document confirmed the exchange of a house for an annual supply of goods that included Caesus Parmensis or cheese made in Parma. It was a valuable cheese, and its ability to travel well via trade meant it was eaten not just by locals but people outside of the area.
On August 11th 1511, there is a note of a letter received by the then king of England, Henry VIII, from Pope Julius which reads:
“The Pope sends his galleas into England for tin to cover the church of St. Peter and sends that king a present of 100 Parmesan cheeses.”
A very fine gift indeed.
However, the real reason I wanted to include Parmigiano–Reggiano in this podcast was to tell the story of one of my favorite characters of British literary history, Samuel Pepys. Born in 1633, Pepys was a Member of Parliament, and an administrator of the navy. However, he is most well known for the decade long diary he kept which gives a remarkable insight into the London of the time.
On the 2nd of September 1666, Pepys was woken by a servant to be told that a huge fire had broken out in London and that his house was right in its path. Over the next few days, he was able to move many of his possessions. However, on the 4th of September, unable to carry heavier items such as wine, he wrote in his diary:
“And in the evening, Sir W. Pen and I did dig another (hole) and put our wine in it, and I my Parmazan cheese.”
The cheese was obviously of enough value to Pepys to bury for safety, although what pleasure it might have bought after being retrieved post underground baking, I’m not sure.
Anyway, I digress.
We could easily spend the rest of this podcast examining the individual history of famous cheeses, but instead, I think I would like to spend the rest of our time today looking at how cheese made its way to the New World, how it became so popular, and how it is now undergoing such a revival.
And so, as we so often do on the podcast, let’s turn our attention to the United States of America.
The fact that cheesemaking obviously requires the domestication of animals might be one of the reasons why I cannot find any reference to cheese being available in North America before the arrival of the first colonists. What we can reasonably be sure of is that cheese was definitely amongst the provisions that were brought over by passengers on the Mayflower.
Indeed, we believe that the Pilgrims ate Dutch cheeses on the Mayflower on their way to the New World.
Cheese proved to be a valuable part of the diet of the new arrivals, particularly again because it was nutritious and could be stored, and the colonists began to make cheeses as well as eating those that they had brought with them. Although this remained primarily a farmstead industry, the first cooperative style of cheese making is claimed to have originated in 1841 by a Mrs. Picket in Wisconsin. She is thought to have started the practice of using the milk of her family’s cows as well as the milk from cows rented from her neighbors – in exchange for some butter and cheese -- to increase capacity. A competing and more widely recognized claim as to who first established the first cheese factory – where references to the word “factory” in the nineteenth century is defined as something more akin to today’s “farmer’s cooperative” – comes from Jesse Williams of Rome, NY, when, in 1851, also took milk from the surrounding farmers to a central location and created a process that could produce a uniform product that was consistent in quality. In his first year of operation, Mr. Williams produced over 10,000 pounds of cheese, more than five times the amounts of a single farmstead. By 1866, there were at least 500 cheese factories in the state of New York. There are also records of American cheeses -- primarily Cheddar -- being exported even back to Great Britain. And by 1880, fueled by arrivals from Switzerland, the United States produced over 216 million pounds of cheese that year.
As the population of the United States grew, so did the demand for cheese. And, as the country began to expand westward, so too did the centers for cheesemaking move with them. Indeed, Wisconsin became an important center of cheesemaking and, as of 2017, is the cheese capital of the United States. As an aside, in 1855, the first factory making Limburger – one of the smelliest cheeses around -- opened in Green County, Wisconsin.
The rise of the new factories was also spurred by the accompanying growth in technological developments in the industry, which allowed, for example, more efficient pressing techniques.
While this more factory based process did have benefits in terms of quality, consistency and avoiding contamination, it did also have a considerable impact in the old school farmhouse style production of cheese, which began to decline in the United States in favor of the factory system. By the 1880s there were nearly 4,000 dairy factories nationwide and, by 1904, the farmhouse production of cheese in the United States had become so insignificant that it was not even mentioned in that year’s census, which also stated that the overall cheese production was now at the level of 317 million pounds per year.
It was around this time that we also see the emergence of that uniquely American product “processed cheese” and the arrival on the scene of one James Lewis Kraft. Kraft was the son of a Canadian Mennonite farmer and emigrated to the United States in 1903. He started in the cheese business in Chicago by selling cheese from a horse drawn wagon. He discovered that by the end of the day, customers wasted cheese where they cut off and threw away dried off portions that were exposed to the air. Cheese spoilage was also a problem during the hot summer months. By 1909, he had created J.L. Kraft & Bros with his four brothers and began to develop a process of extending the life of cheese by grinding the remaining cheddar, blending it and pasteurizing it. This managed to not only make the cheese last longer but also made it easier to ship. The company received a patent for this process in 1916.
The fact that the “processed” cheese had a much longer shelf life than “natural” cheeses made it an immediate success, particularly with the US military, who purchased massive amounts of cheese both during WWI and WWII. After the war, returning troops had developed a liking for the processed cheese which had played such a big part in their rations and began to look to purchase it in their neighborhood stores.
The backlash against large-scale agriculture and public interest in organic and local foods has led to a wide-ranging labelling program which helps us to differentiate between those cheeses made by a natural, if factory, method and those made by processing.
These two styles of cheeses still hold sway in the United States, with the latest figures I could find showing a production of nearly 12.2 billion pounds of cheese in 2016. However, since the 1980s, we have also begun to see a resurgence in the use of artisan -- cheeses made using traditional methods and in small scale -- and farmstead cheeses -- that is, using milk only from the farm producing the cheese. In part, as a response to people’s desire to know from where their food originates, and in part, because the “added value” it gives to dairy producers.
This resurgence began in the late 1970s and is often credited to the sales of goat’s cheese in 1979 of a cheese maker called Laura Chenel. The cheese was soon listed on the menu of legendary restaurant Chez Panisse by its owner, Alice Waters, and became part of an equally legendary dish, their goat’s cheese salad, which brought with it a great deal of publicity not just for Chenel but for farmstead cheese making.
The American Cheese Society was formed in 1983 and currently has over 1800 members. And --as I discovered during my visit to its annual festival in Madison, WI -- over 2000 cheeses have been entered into its competition. In 2015, American artisan, farmstead and specialty cheeses ranked first in specialty food sales selling more than $4 billion, which surely represents an increasing love for the very best examples of one of my favorite foods.
And, it is a love that is shared across the globe. Not only in areas where cheesemaking has been part of daily life almost since humans first started milking animals such as Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, but also in countries that have not traditionally included a great deal of cheese in their menus, such as South East Asia.
And that increasing love of matters cheese seems like as good a point for us to end this week’s podcast. So, I hope that next time you pick up a slice of your favorite cheese, you will think back to this episode and remember our Neolithic ancestors, Odysseus feasting on the cheeses of Polyphemus, the Roman Columella who wrote the first works on cheese, Samuel Pepys who buried his Parmesan in his garden to protect it from the Great Fire of London, the Pilgrims who brought cheese with them on the Mayflower, James Lewis Kraft, who for better or worse, invented American Cheese and so many others who are part of the cheese story.
See you next week.
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Thank you and goodbye from me, Simon Majumdar, we’ll speak to you soon on the next episode of EAT MY GLOBE: Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know About Food.
The EAT MY GLOBE podcast is a production of “It’s Not Much But It’s Ours” and “Producer Girl Productions”
and is created with the kind cooperation of the UCLA Department of History. We would especially like to thank Professor Carla Pestana, the Department Chair of the Department of History, and Nicole Gilhuis for their notes. Also, a huge thank you to Sybil Villanueva for her help with the research and the preparations of the transcripts for this episode, which can be found on the website.
Published Date: April 15, 2019
Last Updated: October 1, 2020
For the annotated transcript with references and resources, please click HERE.