Edible histories: cheese

Categories: History of food

From Homer’s lion to Daniel Defoe’s writhing maggots: Mark Riddaway on the history of cheese

In December 2012, the scientific journal Nature published a paper proclaiming a quite extraordinary discovery. Fragments of ceramic pots riddled with small holes had been dug up at Neolithic sites in Poland, dating back to around 5500BC.

When a team led by Princeton archaeologist Peter Bogucki analysed these fragments, they found direct chemical evidence of an abundance of milk fats coating the pottery. These pots were, the paper suggested, Stone Age cheese strainers, used to separate curds and whey, and the milk fats contained within were the microscopic remnants of some 7,500-year-old cheese. Now that is some seriously mature cheddar.

The development of cheese-making marked a hugely important step in the progress of our species.  Fresh milk—although rich in protein, fats and minerals—was of very little use to our pre-historic ancestors, thanks to their unfortunate lack of fridges and annoying inability to digest lactose beyond childhood.

Learning the art of separating curds from whey solved the preservation problem, and the birth of cheese-making coincided with an increased prevalence in some parts of the world of the lactase persistence which makes dairy products digestible—a blessing still not shared by the majority of people in southern Africa, southeast Asia and South America.

Living, breathing calorie factories
It is impossible to say exactly where, when or how it was first discovered that rennet—an enzyme found in animals’ stomachs—can dramatically hasten the curdling process, creating cheese almost by magic, but we do know from examining the leap in the age-profile of livestock skeletons found in ancient settlements that this discovery changed our relationship with cows, sheep and goats. Domesticated animals became living, breathing calorie factories, producing sustenance throughout their lives, rather than just at its messy end.

Preserved cheese has been found in two jars buried in a tomb in Egypt, dating from around 3000BC. From a similar era, the literature of the Sumerian civilisation, in what is now Iraq, seems to suggest that 20 distinct styles of cheese were available. The Hittites, in the second millennium BC, recorded a vast array of cheese names, including ‘aged soldier cheese’—hopefully derived from its use as a military provision rather than a description of its flavour profile. They also provide the earliest evidence of an international cheese trade—in 1200BC, the Hittite city of Ugarit, in what is now Syria, imported cheese from far away in the city of Ashdod in the southern Levant (modern day Israel).

The Ancient Greeks were great cheese lovers, as evidenced by the frequent appearance of cheese in the Homeric epics, including a reference to a cheese made from lioness’s milk being offered up to Apollo—a treat unavailable even from Borough Market’s specialist affineurs. Aristotle wrote a highly detailed description of cheese-making in his History of Animals, including an analysis of different types of rennet (that of a young deer is his favourite), a suggestion of fig juice as an alternative aid to curdling, and a quite eye-watering discussion of the possibilities of milking a male goat.

The Romans, whose relentless empire-building did so much to spread culinary knowledge around the continent, played a major role in the evolution of European cheese-making. The Latin terms caseus (meaning cheese) and forma (meaning cheese-mould) quickly embedded themselves in a multitude of languages—hence cheese, käse, queijo, queso, fourme, fromage, formaggio and many more.

King Charles the Mad
One remarkable aspect of European cheese-making has been the extraordinary longevity of some of our most famous cheese varieties. French monarchs of the 14th century served brie at court, and roquefort was given an early form of protected geographical status in 1411, when King Charles the Mad granted a monopoly on blue veined cheese to the area’s affineurs—the act of a far more lucid mind than his name would suggest. Cheshire cheese was first referred to in print around 1580, gruyère by 1602, cantal in 1643.

Parmesan has been grated into pasta dishes since the Middle Ages. In Boccaccio’s Decameron, written around 1350, the great Italian writer conjures up an image of a great city of plenty, central to which was “a mountain all of grated parmesan cheese, whereon abode folk who did nothing but make macaroni and ravioli and cook them in capon-broth”.

The manner in which Boccaccio fantasises about the cheese suggests that parmesan was already well established as a culinary luxury. That was certainly the case in 1511, when Pope Julius II sent that notorious epicurean Henry VIII “a present of 100 parmesan cheeses, wines etc”. That the King would later split with the Catholic church seems staggering in the light of such a magnificent gift—maybe he preferred Dutch gouda (the first mention of which dates back to 1184). The value (and impressive hardiness) of parmesan was confirmed in 1666, when Samuel Pepys buried his cherished Italian cheese in the ground to prevent it from being destroyed by the Great Fire of London.

Cheddar cheese has a similarly long and gilded existence. A pipe roll of King Henry IIfrom 1170 records the purchase by the royal court of 10,240 pounds at a farthing per pound, which makes you wonder quite how furry those Plantagenet arteries must have been. Daniel Defoe, in his travel book A Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain, published between 1724 and 1727, writes of cheddar that it is “the greatest and best of the kind in England”, regularly fetching up to four times the price of cheshire—itself “an excellent cheese”, in whose production “the whole county is employed”.

Mites or maggots
Defoe, who rarely resisted the opportunity to discuss cheese at some length, makes clear that not all of our great cheeses have remained unchanged by the passage of time. “Coming south... we passed Stilton,” he writes, “a town famous for cheese, which is called our English parmesan, and is brought to table with the mites or maggots round it, so thick that they bring a spoon with them for you to eat the mites with, as you do the cheese.”

The famous, aristocratic blue veins that now define stilton were an 18th century addition—and a very welcome one, as a wriggling mass of cheese mites would certainly affect the balance of the modern-day Christmas cheese board.

Trying to write a history of cheese that does anything more than gently wash the rind of the subject is pretty much impossible. It is a subject as ancient, complex and global as literature, art or politics. Each individual cheese is like a living thing—changing and evolving with every passing day—and the whole world of cheese-making is similarly prone to fluctuation.

For every medieval survivor there are a hundred more recent additions to the cheesy pantheon, waiting to be immortalised in print by future Boccaccios. For every parmesan there’s a Stinking Bishop, for every roquefort there’s a Ticklemore. Borough Market’s own expert cheese-maker, Bill Oglethorpe of Kappacassein, has found fame as the nominative progenitor of the increasingly renowned Ogleshield—a cheese so good that people will be burying it left, right and centre when the next great fire ignites.

But despite the depth of its history and the breadth of its current range, room for innovation in cheese-making still remains—for all Aristotle’s best efforts, the potential for milking male goats remains thoroughly untapped.