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The other night I was leafing through my Science of Cheese (Tunick) book in preparation for some cheesemaking. I was planning to make two different cheeses, but buy raw milk for only one of them (it costs 4 times as much as ordinary pasteurized milk where I live!). In trying to figure out why the USDA came up with the magic number of 60 days of aging for raw-milk cheese, I came across a number of other interesting factoids:

Pliny mentions blue-vein cheeses. A blue cheese may have been on the menu in Charlemagne’s palace in 778. Gorgonzola is mentioned by name in 879, Roquefort in 1070. Brie was recorded in the 8th century. These are all soft cheeses that are aged only a few weeks. But outside of mountain regions, the larger, long-aging cheeses such as Goudas generally appear in the records only in the 1100-1200s. And of course, there are a variety of other types of cheeses across most of Eurasia as well as central and eastern Africa.

The story begins, as with many of the West’s favorite foods, in central/west Asia. Or maybe not. The classic origin myth has a lone Middle Eastern shepherd discovering cheese after carrying around milk in a sheep stomach for a day. This is fairly improbable for a number of reasons. The first, that a single guy would have been the first to carry liquid in an animal’s stomach at a time when herding was common, and therefore would have been the sole discoverer of the process of rennet-based coagulation. Second, animal rennet, the natural coagulant found in mammalian stomachs used to digest milk, is rare in cheesemaking outside of Europe. Most other cheese-making traditions make use of the naturally occurring bacteria found in raw milk, heat and sometimes additional acid, to make variations on cultured cream, yogurt, and fresh cheeses, such as cottage cheese, ricotta, etc.

In fact, according to a guest on this Gastropod podcast, dairying precedes the emergence of the lactase-persistence gene in humans by about 1000 years. There’s evidence that points to the emergence of the gene in Central Europe 7-10 thousand years ago or more. Not only did the genes show up in that timeframe, so did cheesemaking: ceramic sieves with cheese residue found in Poland have been dated to the 6th millennium BCE. Some people bearing this gene–in extremely high concentrations in northwestern Europe–may have wandered back towards the Middle East, with further migrations into East Africa. The gene may also have evolved in Central Asia and spread west…and then back east. Or it may have evolved independently in both regions as a result of pastoral practices in both regions. (Kazakhs have a relatively high percentage of the gene, but very little European heritage.) Almost certainly, the Indo-European diaspora, running from 4000-1000 BCE, took the practice of dairying and yogurt-making into northern India, though paneer (a word of Persian origin) appears to have arrived much later. The world’s oldest preserved cheese, found in the Taklamakan desert in what is now the far northwest of China, has been dated to c. 1600 BCE.

The Indo-European expansion (Source: Wikipedia)

In any case, rennet-based cheesemaking, including hard, aged cheeses in the mountains, was well-established in Europe by the time of Homer, and was a major commodity in the Roman era, to the point of being subject to price controls under Diocletian. Smoked cheeses were also known. Smoking may have been a common preservation method for home-made cheeses, since it was cheap (salt was expensive). The Romans evidently preferred softer cheeses, and there’s speculation that cheesemaking in Gaul largely evolved in accordance with Roman cheesemaking techniques and Roman market demand.

It may seem odd that warm-weather regions tend to produce fresh cheeses that need to be eaten within a few days while colder ones produce cheeses that age for months–wouldn’t you have wanted it to be the other way around, in the days before refrigeration? But in colder regions, forage becomes scarce in the winter months. In particularly lean winters, cows product little to no milk. In order to have dairy nutrients readily available in winter, long-lived cheeses are a necessity. Conversely, in many warm regions, there is little or no rain during the summer, so although spring and summer are peak milk-producing times for dairy animals, who generally give birth in the spring, pasturage actually becomes richer in the fall and winter, which extends the quality milking season.

Aging a large cheese is also something that must be done slowly to allow the interior of the cheese to ripen to the same degree as the exterior. Warmer temperatures speed up the aging process, making it difficult to produce a large, evenly ripened cheese wheel. Salt is often used in cheese-making to retard aging, but the salt flavor becomes more concentrated as a cheese ages, becoming actively bitter at a certain point.

I’ve mentioned a few times so far that hard, aged cheeses were largely a mountain phenomenon until the high middle ages. This goes back to the need for cool climates for controlled aging. You can get this naturally at high altitudes and latitudes, but in more temperate lowlands, such as the northwestern European plain, you typically need specialized real estate: caves and cellars. It so happens that the 12th and 13th centuries in Europe saw the rise of large abbeys and monasteries–with real estate, stable workforces, and a habit of record-making, all of which facilitated systematic development and consistent execution of new cheese types. Moreover, since these cheeses formed part of the abbeys’ income as opposed to being for local consumption, they needed to be transportable over long distances within the European interior. There was, therefore, a clear economic incentive for individual abbeys to develop their own distinctive, firm, long-lived cheeses that could travel.

Meanwhile, the rest of central-west Eurasia continued to use cultured dairy products, yogurts, and dried curds. China and southeast Asia–then under Chinese influence–were exceptions. China has been one of the most densely populated regions of the world for centuries, and the Chinese put virtually all arable land under crop cultivation from very early on in their history, which left relatively little land for pasturage. Pigs and chickens, which eat almost anything available around a farm, are the dominant domestic animals. The Chinese word for “cow” (niu) is as likely to refer to a water buffalo–a beast of burden–as to what a Westerner would think of as a domestic animal. Sheep and goats are both called yang, and counted as quintessentially foreign. Horses and cows require roughly the same amount of pasture area, and the Chinese were far more preoccupied with using their limited pasturage for obtaining and raising horses for military purposes than with a low-ROI animal like cows.

So going back to Europe and its exceptional diversity of cheese types…was that 8th century Brie or 9th century Gorgonzola similar to today’s cheeses of the same name? In most cases it’s hard to say–detailed descriptions of food were certainly a thing in Epicurus‘ day and through the Roman empire, but not again until the Renaissance (when cheese fell out of favor for a while as “unhealthy”, for reasons I haven’t yet tracked down). It’s quite possible that they were broadly in the same category of cheeses as they occupy today, given that the latitude and topography haven’t changed. But there are many other variables that give cheese its flavor and texture.

  • The amount of fat in the milk contributes to how soft or hard the cheese will be. Higher-fat cheeses are typically soft (think double and triple-creams). Milks from different animal breeds have different fat content; as new breeds were developed or introduced from other regions, fat content could have changed, and therefore the texture of the cheese would have been different.
  • The availability of salt. The salt industry was one of many that collapsed after the fall of Rome, due to the increasing uncertainty of transport within Europe. Would Dark Ages cheeses have used as much of the precious commodity as later times, when it again became more readily available?
  • The 8th and 9th centuries were colder than today; the 12th and 13th centuries were warmer. This would have had effects on several things: the amount and type of feed available to animals at various times of year; how carefully aging needed to be controlled; and not least, the types of bacteria living in a given region. Bacteria don’t exist in a vacuum: they’re part and parcel of the entire biome, highly subject to variations of temperature, humidity, local plant and animal species, etc. All of these things likely varied over the centuries, and therefore the bacteria which give a cheese its character did as well. This was probably a gradual process as far as cheesemaking was concerned: wooden cheesemaking equipment such as vats and spoons, impregnated with local cultures, were handed down from one generation to the next, but new bacterial additions to the biome would have mingled continually with the existing ones.

Cheese development in Europe rebounded after Renaissance prejudices died down. A whole flurry of new cheeses, including Camembert, came into being in the 18th and 19th centuries, aided by increased ease of transport and idea exchanges as well as increasing scientific knowledge.

The era of European imperialism also took cheese to places it had never before been seen: Australia and the Americas. Africa already had some cheeses of its own, especially in the north and east: either of the Middle Eastern yogurt/cultured curd varieties, or heavily salted, hard-pressed cheeses. The French introduced their own cheesemaking traditions in West Africa in the 19th century, a few of which survive in pockets. Australia naturally inherited cheddar-type English cheeses. The cheese situation in the Americas is actually a direct result of two things: climate and degree of native extermination. Most of Mesoamerica is simply too hot for aged cheeses, so Spanish fresh cheeses such as queso fresco and queso blanco are common. North and South America are more temperate, but cheese varieties are similarly limited in the Andean nations; these countries still have populations that are heavily native or mestizo, and native Americans are uniformly lactase-nonpersistent, since there were no dairy animals in the Americas prior to Spanish conquest. But in places like Argentina and North America, where the native population was effectively replaced by European immigrants, a variety of European-style cheeses can be found.

Animal rennet began to be mass-produced in the U.S. in the 1860s, which led increasingly to mass-production of cheese itself. Without strongly established local cheese traditions, mass-produced cheeses quickly took over in the U.S. Fortunately, there’s only so much “cheese food” a nation can take. As of 2013, per capita consumption of processed cheese products was the lowest since 1974, declining 3.9 percent from 2012.