The History of Cheeses

In 1958 Charles de Gaulle, French general and statesman, said, “How do you govern a country that has 246 varieties of cheese?” A romantic way of expressing an interesting concept: this diversity expresses the complex identity of a people, which at its core contains a thousand facets.

Cheese is culture, identity and tradition. It is an expression of the different territories and production processes that we, as humans, have evolved and perfected over the millennia to improve taste and, no less important, safety. We often find it on the table, in restaurants, in markets. So much so that we take it for granted, our beloved cheese.

Let’s face it. How many of you have ever wondered “when was cheese invented?” or “how on earth did we come up with combining milk and stuff giving rise to rennet?”

I mean, what is the history of cheese?

Let’s start with a general concept: food history can be summarized in the ability humans have had to regulate and control to their own advantage the processes of production and preservation, for example by fermentation, of certain materials. Among these is milk.

We have learned to build our own food by using and transforming the resources available to us. The art of cheese making has always been based on a few basic elements: milk, rennet, heat, and salt.


The origin of cheese: the legends


A famous legend would have it that theorigin of the cheese is due to an Arab merchant. Having to cross the desert, as food he brought with him fresh milk contained in a saddlebag of sheep stomach. The heat, movement, and enzymes on the sheep’s stomach wall, reactivated by the heat, acidified and coagulated the milk, turning it into “cheese.”

The origins of cheese are also mentioned in Greek mythology and literature. According to Homer, Zeus was fed the milk and sublime cheeses of the goat Amalthea, whose horn symbolized the so-called cornucopia of abundance. After the legends, we now turn to the real story.

The origin of cheese: the history

No one will ever know who was the first dairyman in history. Theorigin of cheese is intertwined with the habits and needs of primitive man, who was faced with the need to use, for as long as possible, the nutritional capacities of milk from dairy animals. As is often the case, it was a mix of ingenuity and causality that led to the discovery of curd-and thus cheese! But how did it happen? When?

It would seem that theinvention of cheese was due to the shepherds who populated Mesopotamia about 18,000 years ago. Some scholars believe that the Tartars, Tibetans and Persians were the first to try their hand structurally at the art of dairy farming, but there are no documentary sources to prove this. We have to go far into the millennia to start finding the first actual traces of cheese.

Anthropologists cannot precisely define the period when humans began to produce the first cheeses, but we can rely on valuable clues and evidence to help guide us.

About 12,000 years ago humans developed techniques and processes that enabled them to grow grains, legumes and vegetables. This moment in history is known as the Agricultural Revolution. It was a long process, long in the making, marking the birth of civilizations as we know them today. A few millennia later, Homo sapiens learned to domesticate animals to produce food; among the first species raised were pigs and, lo and behold, oxen.

The milk produced by cattle was collected and stored in animal skin containers, and this is probably what made the magic happen! Putting milk in leather containers, in fact, exposed it to contact with microorganisms and- bingo! The milk became solid because of the action of the bacteria! This solid mass of curdled milk, which someone got the crazy idea to taste, constituted an early form of cheese.

Polish sieves – 7500 years ago

The oldest cheese traces ever found are for all intents and purposes traces of milk fat. It’s an extraordinary find: ancient pottery sherds dating back 7500 years have been found in some! The research, published in Nature, states:

Archaeologist Peter Bogucki, of Princeton University in New Jersey, speculated in the 1980s that cheese production may have begun as early as 5,500 B.C. in Europe. Archaeologists working at ancient cattle ranching sites in what is now Poland had found pieces of pottery vessels filled with holes, similar to cheese strainers. Bogucki had imagined that Neolithic farmers had found a way to make the most of their herds, not just for milk or meat.

Cheese history: Polish sieves 7500 years ago traces of cheese

Recently, the research team confirmed this theory: biochemical evidence shows that filters were used to separate milk fats. According to the article, cheese production would have given Neolithic farmers a way to make the most of the resources available from their herds. And there is also another aspect to consider: digestibility!

Humans were only able to digest milk sugars until infancy at that time. In adulthood, almost no one produced the enzyme lactase, which is needed to digest lactose; however, traditional cheese contains very little of it. Cheese production would then enable farmers to overcome the indigestibility of milk!

This story tells us two different things:

  1. cheese production indicates that humans had learned to use rather sophisticated technologies long ago
  2. had begun to develop a complex relationship with animals, a relationship that went beyond hunting.

A very ancient testimony – the “Dairy Frieze”

cheese history: the dairy frieze

For millennia, then, all is silent. But surprisingly comes something unexpected and detailed about how dairy processing was, for all intents and purposes, an integral part of human civilization. Describing the stages of milk processing is a Sumerian bas-relief dated to the 3rd millennium BCE. The “Dairy Frieze,” this is the name given to the epigraph, depicts priests engaged in milk processing.

From this part of the world, in Italy, sheep and goat farming spread in 5,000 B.C., and archaeological sources allow us to date the beginning of soft cheese production in 2800 B.C.

The oldest fossil cheese – Egypt

The oldest fossil cheese ever found, on the other hand, dates back to about 3200 years ago and was discovered in an Egyptian tomb from the 1st millennium BC. The cheese had been buried with the deceased as a funerary offering and was discovered in the 2018 during archaeological excavations in the Saqqara region of Egypt. The cheese, which is thought to have been similar to fresh cheese, had been stored in a clay jar and underwent chemical analysis to determine its composition.

This shows that cheese making is an ancient and widespread practice dating back millennia.

Subsequent developments

Over time, people began to develop techniques to control the milk coagulation process and the processing of the solid mass, resulting in a wide variety of cheeses. Techniques for making cheese have been passed down from generation to generation, and have been developed in every part of the world, with each culture developing its own types of cheese. Each country has “specialized” with varieties of peculiar processes, ancillary ingredient additions designed to fragrance and enrich the flavor of the cheeses.

Below, precisely because it is impossible to outline an unambiguous history of cheese in the world, I leave you with a series of curiosities related to different eras.

Ready, set:

  • The art of cheese making using also vegetable curds such as sprigs or fig juice, saffron, artichokes and vinegar was perfected by the Etruscans and passed on to the Romans, who made it almost “an industry.” On country estates, cheese was made, consumed locally, and the surplus was sold;
  • Inancient Greece, it is said that sportsmen competing in the Olympics used to eat cheese mixed with oil, fruit and honey to regenerate themselves;
  • Pliny the Elder (1st century AD), demonstrating the importance of cheese in the diet, gives a list of the most renowned Italic dairy products in Rome. At banquets in the imperial age, they even went so far as to make refined culinary preparations with cheese. The Romans also brought this knowledge and techniques to much of their domains, as evidenced by the spread of the term “caseus” (cheese) in almost every European language: from English “cheese” to German “kase,” from Dutch “kaas” to Spanish “queso.”
  • In the Middle Ages people had a curious idea of this food, somewhat aware of its complexity. The great physicians of the time were indeed wary of him. “Caseus est sanus quem dat avara manus,” went an aphorism attributed to the Salerno School. It means “it is good for that cheese served by a miserly hand,” and it means that only cheese eaten in small doses is not bad for health;
  • The tradition of cheddar cheese dates back to 17th-century Britain, when farmers in the Cheddar region began producing cheese in large quantities for sale. Brie cheese, on the other hand, originated in France and dates back to at least the 13th century.

Advanced technology and modern preservation techniques are used in modern cheese production to ensure quality and food safety. However, many artisanal cheese-making traditions are still practiced around the world, and many food enthusiasts appreciate such variety and richness.

Curiosity: the word cheese

Today’s word “cheese” is a derivation of the word “formos”; with this the ancient Greeks used to indicate the wicker basket in which it was customary to place curdled milk to give it shape. The Greek “formos” later became the “form” of the Romans, which in turn turned into “formage” in Old French.

The world’s most expensive cheese

The most expensive cheese in the world is “Pule” cheese, produced in Serbia. This cheese is made from donkey milk and its price can reach about 1,000 euros per kilo. The production of this cheese is very limited and requires a significant amount of milk to produce only a small amount of cheese, which contributes to its high cost.


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