The History of Cheese

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Podcast Transcript

It can be consumed blocks or wheels, strings or curds, slices or cubes. 

It can be soft or hard, fresh or old, and it can even be consumed if it smells bad and has mold on it.

Pizza, hamburgers, and crackers depend on it, yet it can also be eaten by itself.

I am of course talking about cheese. Learn more about cheese, how it was discovered, and how it is made, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

Cheese is one of those things that dates back before recorded human history. We have no clue who discovered cheese, or where the discovery was made. Pretty much as far back as we can document human civilization, there was some form of cheese. 

It is believed, quite reasonably I think, that cheese was discovered around the same time that humans began domesticating animals. 

That means that the first cheeses would have been made from sheep or goat milk, not milk from cows. 

There are a couple of theories as to how it was discovered. 

The first theory is that it was probably accidentally discovered by someone who was transporting liquid milk in a bladder made from the stomach of a ruminant animal. Inside the stomach would have been trace amounts of the enzyme known as rennet.

When exposed to rennet, milk will start to curdle to form cheese. Someone then opened up their milk bladder and found that there was a solid inside, and ate it, and voila! Cheese was born.

The other theory is that someone added fruit or fruit juice to milk. The acid in the fruit would have caused the curdling, and voila! Cheese was born.

However it happened, cheese was actually a really important innovation for humans. 

Milk allowed humans to extract more calories from animals beyond just meat. If you slaughter an animal, you can eat it, but that’s it. If you can extract milk, however, you can consume calories for possibly years before you consume the animal for meat. 

Cheese was important because it allow people to store milk, which otherwise would spoil quickly. There really wasn’t much in the way of ancient trade in fluid milk like there was in other foodstuffs because it wouldn’t last long without refrigeration. 

Cheese, on the other hand, could last for years, and moreover, it was the only real way to store dairy in hot climates. 

In cold climates, cheese was another way to consume calories during the winter that you might have stored during the summer. 

Our evidence of cheesemaking and cheese consumption goes way back. The earliest evidence comes from clay sieves found in many sites in Europe which date back about 8,000 years. They were used to separate solid curds from the liquid whey. Chemical analysis of the pottery found traces of cheese on the interior of the sieve. 

Ancient Sumerian texts dating back 4,000 years refer to cheese, and tablets from the Mycenaeans on the island of Crete documented the storage of cheese.

Actual cheese has been found in tombs in the Xinjiang region of China which has been dated to be 3,600 years old. A “sold white mass” was found in a jar in a tomb in Egypt which was chemically found to be cheese, and it was 3,000 years old. 

Just as an aside on the topic of really old cheese, in 2012 a cheesemaker from Wisconsin found some cheddar cheese that he had made in 1972 in the back of his cooler. It turned out that the 40-year-old cheese was very edible. He sold it to a cheese shop which made it available in very small quantities to customers. Supposedly, it had an extremely sharp, intense taste and could only be consumed in very small amounts.

We know that cheesemaking had advanced to a point in Ancient Rome where there were many different varieties that were available and they were imported from all over the Roman world.

Until the European age of exploration, cheese making was mostly confined to Europe and the Middle East. There was some small-scale cheesemaking in China and in India, but nothing like what was found elsewhere. 

So, cheese has been around a really long time, and I’m sure all of you know what cheese is, but what is it really? How do you make cheese? 

I should note that there are different ways to make cheese. The steps I’m going to describe are how most cheeses are made, but there are some types of cheeses that might use different steps.

The first step is to heat the milk to encourage the growth of bacteria which will consume lactose and turn it into lactic acid. The type of bacteria used can create different cheese. Some bacteria only produce lactic acid and others can produce gases as well like carbon dioxide. If gases are produced you can end up with a cheese with holes in it from the bubbles like Swiss cheese.

The next important step is the addition of the enzyme rennet. This was the enzyme I mentioned before which was found naturally in the stomach of ruminant animals. The rennet will cause the primary protein in milk called casein to precipitate. The casein will form a solid matrix with milk fat trapped inside of it. 

Most rennet today will not come from animal stomachs. It comes from microbial production, or alternatives are used which can produce similar results. 

This process will form solids known as curds. The longer the process is allowed to go on, the larger the curds that will form. Cottage cheese is a cheese with very small curds. In some places like Wisconsin and Quebec, you can find fresh cheese curds, which are much larger. 

Next, the solid curds need to be separated from the liquid whey. This can be done in any number of ways. Traditionally, you might put it in a porous cloth, aka cheesecloth, and squeeze out the liquid. It can also be dehydrated by increasing the temperature of the curds. 

Here I should note that cheese that hasn’t fully aged and isn’t fully dehydrated is known as green cheese. It has nothing to do with the color green. The word green refers to being fresh and not ripe, the same as the word greenhorn. Most green cheeses are actually white in color. That is where the phrase, “the moon is made out of green cheese” comes from. It looks like a wheel of white cheese without a rind. 

Salt will sometimes be added at this point. In addition to flavor, salt will stop the growth of some bacteria. 

The curds will be treated differently depending on the cheese. 

There is a process known as “cheddaring” where the curd mats are cut up and stacked upon each other to remove whey on the bottom of the pile. They are turned over about every 10 minutes using the weight of the stack to expel moisture. 

Mozzarella cheese curds are stretched and kneaded like taffy, which is why when you buy it in its raw form, it looks like it is a knot or a round ball.

Finally, the cheese may be put into a mold for aging and ripening. Some cheeses might be bound in wax, like Gouda, and others allow bacteria or mold to grow on the exterior to create a rind. 

It is estimated that there are over 1,800 different types of cheese in the world today. 

The way you get different cheeses is by variations of the inputs and methods I just described. 

For example, there are cheeses made from the milk of cows, sheep, goats, camels, donkeys, yak, buffalo, moose, and yes, I know you are thinking it, even humans. There are cheeses that are native to every continent except Antarctica, and I’m sure some scientists might yet check that one off one winter when they are bored. 

There are some specific cheeses that I think deserve special mention. Some you might have heard of, and others I’m quite sure you never have. 

One of the rarest cheeses is a cheese from Italy known as Bitto. It is only produced in one valley in the Lombardy region in the north and it is a mixture of cow and goat milk. What is notable about it is that it is aged longer than pretty much any other cheese. It is common to age Bitto for 10 to 20 years. The result is a cheese that costs $150 per pound. One 15-years old wheel of Bitto sold for $6,500 in China.

The second most expensive cheese in the world comes from Sweden. It is made in the town of Bjurholm, and the reason it is so expensive is that it is made out of moose milk. It all comes from 3 domesticated moose, and I haven’t a clue how you go about milking a moose.  It will sell for $500 a pound. 

The most expensive cheese comes from Serbia in the Zasavica Special Nature Reserve. They create a cheese known as Pule which is made from the milk of the endangered Balkan donkey. It will sell for $600 a pound. 

One question many people have is can you eat the white rind on brie cheese? The answer is, yes. You absolutely can. The rind is made from a mold that is totally edible.  

If the exterior of a cheese is a bright red, that’s just wax and you shouldn’t eat that. However, if it is orange, like on Stilton cheese, that too is edible. 

Why are blue cheeses blue? Blue cheeses are cheeses that have cultures of the mold known as penicillium…and yes, they are related to the same mold that was used to create the antibiotic penicillin. However, the penicillium in cheese does not necessarily kill bacteria.

Some blue cheeses are also known as stinky cheeses. The smell usually comes from a bacteria known as Brevibacterium linens, which is the same bacterial which is responsible for foot odor. So, yeah, it isn’t a coincidence. 

One stinky cheese that is not a blue cheese is Limburger. It is so smelly that it was used in old cartoons as a reference for anything that smelled really bad. You can still buy Limburger in most stores around where I live in Wisconsin. 

One of the most famous, and personally my favorite cheese in the world, is Roquefort. It is a blue sheep’s milk cheese that is only made in one region in southern France

Legend has it that it was discovered when a young boy in a cave was eating his lunch of bread and cheese when he saw a beautiful girl in the distance. He dropped his food to go meet her. He totally forgot about the food and found it a few months later and the mold from the bread had created Roquefort cheese. 

It was the favorite cheese of Emperor Charlemange. According to legend, he passed through an abbey in the south of France where he was served Roquefort cheese. He began cutting away the blue parts and was told by the local bishop that he was removing the best parts. Thereafter, two carts of Roquefort were delivered to the emperor every year. 

That is why it is known as the cheese of kings and popes.

Today there are over 22 million tons of cheese produced annually in the world. The largest producing country is the United States, which makes over 6 million tons every year. The largest cheese-producing state is, of course, Wisconsin.

True story, years ago they held a competition for a slogan to put on the new Wisconsin license plates. One of the ideas submitted, which actually had some support, was “Eat Cheese or Die”. 

If you are really into cheese, you might be happy to know that there is a community of cheese aficionados that is very similar to the world wine. 

Just as there are master sommeliers who have shown mastery in the study of wine, so too there is the title of master fromager.  Just like mastery of wine, it takes years of study and knowledge of hundreds of cheeses and the cheese-making process.

Cheese is an ancient food that has never waned in popularity over thousands of years. It can be found in expensive, obscure varieties, as well as mass-produced cheeses that can be found on pizza and in Cheez Whiz. 

It is all due to what was probably an accidental discovery thousands of years ago by a shepherd who was trying to carry his milk home from work. 

Everything Everywhere Daily is an Airwave Media Podcast. 

The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett. 

Today’s review comes from listener Denise P over at Podcast Republic. They write:

Love this show. So many interesting topics covered succinctly and well. How you managed to explain various classes of infinity using only audio … in about 10 minutes … was amazing! I recommend this podcast a lot. Thank you.

Thank you, Denise! I had a lot of trepidation about the infinity episode. There are several subjects I’d like to do episodes on, but they are just too hard to do in an audio format. Perhaps some time in the future, if the show can grow big enough, I might be able to add a video component to the show. 

Remember, if you leave a review or send in a question, you too can have it read on the show.