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History of Cheese

Updated on May 26, 2010

Cheeses are classed as soft and hard, and there are many varieties in each group. English soft varieties are the-cottage and cream cheeses; the hard cheeses belong to the Stilton or the Cheddar type. Of foreign cheeses, Bondon, Brie, and Camembert are soft, and Gruyere, Edam, Gorgonzola, Parmesan, and Roquefort hard.

The origin of cheese is unknown. It may have been discovered by shepherds—perhaps in the Indus Valley or Mesopotamia some 6,000 to 8,000 years ago. The shepherds carried milk in a pouch made from a sheep's or goat's stomach, and milk thus brought into contact with rennet from the stomach lining would coagulate into cheese. It is definitely known that cheese was a common food by 2000 B.C., for small cheese molds, with holes punched for draining the curds, have been found in ruins dating back to that period.

An extensive cheese industry existed in the Roman Empire. Pliny the Elder, in his Historia naturalis (77 A.D. ), describes many of the cheeses prized by Roman gourmets, including a cheese believed to be the Swiss cheese called Sbrinz, a cheese that may have been the forerunner of Roquefort, and the firm sharp cheese of Cheshire favored by Roman legionnaires.

During the Middle Ages, cheese was made primarily by the monks in abbeys, and many monastery cheeses are still world renowned. Cam-embert cheese is mentioned in 12th century chronicles, but it was Napoleon who made it famous.

Beyond the walls of monasteries and great feudal estates, most cheese making was a family operation until the 15th and 16th centuries, when farmers in England began to "join their milk together" to make large wheels of cheese. Highway tolls in Europe contributed to the making of large cheeses, for tolls were levied according to the number of cheeses in a farmer's cart rather than by weight.

Factory cheese was produced in the United States in 1851 when a Rome, N. Y., farmer, Jesse Williams, urged other farmers to sell him their excess milk. Fifteen years later, 500 cheese factories were operating in New York state alone.

The first process cheese was developed in Switzerland in 1911, but a year later in Chicago a cheese peddler named James L. Kraft began experimenting with a method of pasteurizing cheeses. Approximately 75% of all cheese sold today in the United States is made by some adaptation of this basic method.


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