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← A brie(f) history of cheese

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Showing Revision 3 created 12/13/2018 by Kayla Wolf.

  1. Before empires and royalty,
  2. before pottery and writing,
  3. before metal tools and weapons –
  4. there was cheese.
  5. As early as 8000 BCE,
  6. the earliest Neolithic farmers
    living in the Fertile Crescent
  7. began a legacy of cheesemaking
  8. almost as old as civilization itself.
  9. The rise of agriculture led to
    domesticated sheep and goats,
  10. which ancient farmers harvested for milk.
  11. But when left in warm conditions
    for several hours,
  12. that fresh milk began to sour.
  13. Its lactic acids caused proteins to
    coagulate, binding into soft clumps.
  14. Upon discovering this
    strange transformation,
  15. the farmers drained the remaining liquid –
  16. later named whey –
  17. and found the yellowish globs could be
    eaten fresh as a soft, spreadable meal.
  18. These clumps, or curds, became
    the building blocks of cheese,
  19. which would eventually be aged, pressed,
    ripened, and whizzed
  20. into a diverse cornucopia
    of dairy delights.
  21. The discovery of cheese gave Neolithic
    people an enormous survival advantage.

  22. Milk was rich with essential proteins,
    fats, and minerals.
  23. But it also contained high
    quantities of lactose –
  24. a sugar which is difficult to process for
    many ancient and modern stomachs.
  25. Cheese, however, could provide all of
    milk’s advantages with much less lactose.
  26. And since it could be preserved
    and stockpiled,
  27. these essential nutrients could be eaten
  28. throughout scarce famines
    and long winters.
  29. Some 7th millennium BCE pottery fragments
    found in Turkey
  30. still contain telltale residues of
    the cheese and butter they held.
  31. By the end of the Bronze Age,

  32. cheese was a standard commodity
    in maritime trade
  33. throughout the eastern Mediterranean.
  34. In the densely populated city-states of
  35. cheese became a staple
    of culinary and religious life.
  36. Some of the earliest known writing
  37. includes administrative records
    of cheese quotas,
  38. listing a variety of cheeses for different
    rituals and populations
  39. across Mesopotamia.
  40. Records from nearby civilizations
    in Turkey also reference rennet.
  41. This animal byproduct, produced in the
    stomachs of certain mammals,
  42. can accelerate and control coagulation.
  43. Eventually this sophisticated cheesemaking
    tool spread around the globe,
  44. giving way to a wide variety of new,
    harder cheeses.
  45. And though some conservative food
    cultures rejected the dairy delicacy,
  46. many more embraced cheese, and quickly
    added their own local flavors.
  47. Nomadic Mongolians used yaks’ milk to
    create hard, sundried wedges of Byaslag.

  48. Egyptians enjoyed goats’ milk cottage
    cheese, straining the whey with reed mats.
  49. In South Asia, milk was coagulated with a
    variety of food acids,
  50. such as lemon juice, vinegar, or yogurt
  51. and then hung to dry into loafs of paneer.
  52. This soft mild cheese could be added to
    curries and sauces,
  53. or simply fried as a
    quick vegetarian dish.
  54. The Greeks produced bricks of salty brined
    feta cheese,
  55. alongside a harder variety similar to
    today’s pecorino romano.
  56. This grating cheese was produced in Sicily
  57. and used in dishes all across the
  58. Under Roman rule, “dry cheese”
    or “caseus aridus,”
  59. became an essential ration
  60. for the nearly 500,000 soldiers guarding
    the vast borders of the Roman Empire.
  61. And when the Western Roman
    Empire collapsed,

  62. cheesemaking continued to evolve
  63. in the manors that dotted the medieval
    European countryside.
  64. In the hundreds of Benedictine monasteries
    scattered across Europe,
  65. medieval monks experimented endlessly
    with different types of milk,
  66. cheesemaking practices,
  67. and aging processes that led to many
    of today’s popular cheeses.
  68. Parmesan, Roquefort, Munster
    and several Swiss types
  69. were all refined and perfected
    by these cheesemaking clergymen.
  70. In the Alps, Swiss cheesemaking was
    particularly successful –
  71. producing a myriad of cow’s milk cheeses.
  72. By the end of the 14th century,
  73. Alpine cheese from the Gruyere region of
    Switzerland had become so profitable
  74. that a neighboring state invaded the
    Gruyere highlands
  75. to take control of the growing
    cheese trade.
  76. Cheese remained popular through
    the Renaissance,

  77. and the Industrial Revolution took
    production out of the monastery
  78. and into machinery.
  79. Today, the world produces roughly
    22 billion kilograms of cheese a year,
  80. shipped and consumed around the globe.
  81. But 10,000 years after its invention,
  82. local farms are still following in the
    footsteps of their Neolithic ancestors,
  83. hand crafting one of humanity’s
    oldest and favorite foods.