Sniffing out the history of the cheese industry

PUBLISHED: 17:16 08 November 2007 | UPDATED: 21:52 29 May 2010

Deli assistant Joanna Trevail with a selection of cheeses – Pic: Michael Boyton

Deli assistant Joanna Trevail with a selection of cheeses - Pic: Michael Boyton

THE origins of cheesemaking go back further in time than recorded history itself - for thousands of years people have been enjoying the delicacy, made with varying levels of complexity. It is suggested that the process was first carried out between 8000 a

THE origins of cheesemaking go back further in time than recorded history itself - for thousands of years people have been enjoying the delicacy, made with varying levels of complexity.

It is suggested that the process was first carried out between 8000 and 3000 BC, perhaps originating from the Middle East or Central Asia.

It is likely that the art of making cheese was first discovered by accident, when milk may well have been stored in a container made from the stomach of an animal, as was common practice at the time.

The milk would separate into curds and whey in the animal's stomach, forming a very basic but undeniably cheesy cheese.

Separately, it is possible that cheesemaking was discovered by someone pressing and salting milk to preserve it.

However, realising that storing the milk in an animal stomach led to better quality cheese may have brought about the realisation that adding rennet produced superior curds, helping cement rennet in the cheesemaking process.

In terms of actual evidence, the first recorded use of cheese dates back to around 2000 BC, as unmistakeable signs of cheesemaking have been discovered in an Egyptian tomb from around that time.

Early cheeses would have been nothing on the wealth of choice and quality available today, and would likely have been salty and sour, reminiscent of cottage cheese, or perhaps feta.

The cooler climates of Europe, where conditions favour cheesemaking, would have provided a better environment for the growth of the lovely microbes and moulds that are responsible for the varied and delicious flavours of modern aged cheeses.

Cheese is even featured in Homer's Odyssey, where the Cyclops is described to have

made and stored both sheep's and goat's cheese.

Specifically, it says: "His cheese-racks were loaded with cheeses, and he had more lambs and kids than his pens could hold..."

Cheese became ubiquitous in the Roman era, when it is likely that it took on a form more similar to modern cheese.

Complex methods of cheesemaking, involving rennet coagulation, the pressing of the curd, salting and ageing, would have created a cheese that would not seem completely alien to the modern cheese lover.

Joanne Phillips, shop assistant at Delicious delicatessen in Dunmow, explained that it was their stronger cheeses that tended to sell the most.

"Our Lancashire cheeses sell well," she said, "people tend to go for mature rather than mild. Unusual varieties are always popular too, our Spanish cheeses for example are not made so much anymore and they are very popular.

"I think people look for a strong flavour - Dunmow doesn't seem to be a mild cheese area."

The British Cheese Board estimates there are around 700 distinct local cheeses in Britain, while surprisingly France and Italy are said to have significantly less, with approximately 400 each.

A famous French proverb observes that there is a cheese for every day of the year and former French leader Charles de Gaulle once said "how can you govern a country in which there are 246 kinds of cheese?"

The answer to this seems obvious - simply provide your people with plenty of crackers. Wasn't that tough really, was it Charles?

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