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History of Cheese Making

Updated on August 17, 2009

Nearly 3,000 years ago Homer told how Odysseus saw the giant Polyphemus making cheese from ewe's milk, which in France today is the only legal source of Roquefort. Cheeses have been made also from the milk of mares, camels and reindeer. Goat's-milk cheeses are not uncommon, but most kinds are made from cow's milk.

The art of making cheese probably originated in Asia and spread to Europe, where it flourished during the Roman Empire. Cheesemaking was introduced into England by the Romans, and during the Middle Ages the art was practiced by monks in monasteries.

The Discovery of Cheese

The discovery of cheese had been a consequence of the Eurasian domestication of milk-yielding animals, horses, oxen, sheep and goats; and cheese was familiar to the civilizations of the ancient world - to the Egyptians, and the Hittites, in Greece and Rome - as it is to pastoral nomads of Siberia and Central Asia. It may have come late across the Channel. In France, Germany and Denmark perforated pots of the late Bronze Age have been found which may be evidence of cheese-making, since they could have been used in draining off the whey. Early Iron Age pots of a similar kind have been excavated in Wiltshire and in Somerset. Classical writers have something to say of cheese in Europe. Both Strabo, in his Geography, compiled in the last century B.C., and Caesar in his de hello Gallico mention that the Gauls made cheese. Caesar observed that cheese was a staple food of the Germans, but Strabo also wrote of the Britons that they were relatively simple and barbaric - 'so much so that on account of their inexperience some of them, although well supplied with milk, make no cheese'.

In the Middle Ages the English had only soft cheese, hard cheese, green cheese, and the herb-flavored spermyse. 'Green' denotes freshly-made cheese which has not matured.

Improved transport in the eighteenth century led to cheeses from different districts becoming widely known for the first time. In England Stilton cheese was probably first made at the beginning of the eighteenth century. It was certainly sold at that time from a public-house at Stilton, in Huntingdonshire, even if the actual making was carried out in another village. Some writers say that the originator was Mrs Paulet of Wymondham, in the Melton district of Leicestershire; but there cannot be many well-established kinds of cheese with so clear an origin.

The beginning of the end of the great local cheeses of England came when in 1870 members of the Royal Agricultural Society were so concerned about the poor quality of English farm-made cheeses that they recommended the introduction of factory cheese-making in imitation of the Americans, who had set up cheese factories nearly twenty years earlier. Today over ninety per cent of English cheese is factory-made, and a number of great English cheeses, like those of Gloucestershire, have disappeared; but it is still possible to buy some strange varieties in the shops.

The largest cheese in the world, and many say one of the finest, is Swiss Emmentaler, which may weigh as much as 230 lb., by contrast with which French Brie is usually only about one centimeter thick. Mysost, the most popular Norwegian 'cheese', is made from curdless whey which' is stewed down until it is a brown sticky mass; cream is stirred in and, when pressed, the finished food is salty and fudge-like. Perhaps the piece de resistance of extant cheese curiosities is Japanese 'Roquefort', This concoction is made from soya flour instead of milk, the protein of which is dissolved in water, precipitated by calcium chloride in place of rennet, and ripened by means of a fungal mold quite different from that of the European blue cheeses.

The earliest cheeses made in America were probably types of cheddar introduced by the English colonists who settled on the East Coast. Swiss immigrants, who arrived later and settled in present-day Wisconsin, began producing Swiss cheese.

In the United States, as in other countries, cheese was originally made on farms from surplus milk. In 1851, however, the first American cheese factory was started by Jesse Williams near the town of Rome, N.Y. During the next ten years many other cheese factories were established around this area, and until the early 1900's the largest cheese market in the world was Little Falls, N.Y. As the United States expanded, the cheesemaking industry gradually moved westward, finally centering in the area around Wisconsin, where the milk supply is abundant. Today, nearly all cheese in the United States is manufactured in large factories.

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