Cheese is one of the most varied foods loved by a lot of people in the world. Its taste can be of any combination of these flavors: salty, tangy, sweet, creamy, bland, buttery, pungent, sharp, rich or delicate. It may be hard enough to chip off in flakes or soft enough to have a consistency like a mayonnaise. It is very versatile and can serve as a perfect companion for drinks and ingredient for foods (wine and pizza, anyone?) or as a snack in itself. You can also find cheeses in all price ranges from the very very cheap to the ultra expensive (thousands of dollars per pound!).
Regardless of the kind, cheese is made from milk, and it could be from any milk-producing animal, such as cows, goats, sheep, camels – even yak and water buffalo. The different sources of milk, as well as the salt content, storage, aging, and the addition of other flavorings and additives, cause the variety of flavors and consistency.
Cheese is also one of those foods that are firmly inculcated in the Western culture, just like beer, bread and wine. But the origins of cheese is most likely from the ancient cradle of civilization: the fertile crescent of Mesopotamia.
No one can be really sure who and where the first cheese was made. The domestication of milk-producing animals began around 8,000 to 10,000 years ago, and the earliest evidence of cheese and cheesemaking were found in Egyptian tomb murals dating around 4,000 BC.
Legends say cheese was an accidental discovery of an Arab merchant from Central Asia who brought his supply of milk into a sheep’s stomach on his journey across the desert. Because of rennet, the enzyme in the animal’s stomach, combined with the sun’s heat, the milk separated and formed whey and curds of cheese. Then he drinks the milk and eats the other, discovering that the curd tastes delicious.
There’s nothing much known to this story, but it was believed to be the first method of cheesemaking. Egyptian tomb murals depicting how cheese was made shows milk being stored in skin bags suspended from poles.
It is also believed that merchant travelers from Central Asia brought the art of cheese making in Europe. Romans quickly developed cheesemaking into a fine art (they were one of the world’s finest artisans, anyway), refining the processes with skill and knowledge. They discovered that various conditions and treatments under storage produced different flavors and characteristics, thus creating various kinds of cheese. The Roman elite, having big houses, had separate kitchens for cheese called the caseale, and there were also areas where cheese could be matured. People from large towns take their homemade cheese to a special center to be smoked.
At first, knowledge about cheese making remained with Roman farmers and landowners, but it was eventually passed down to the local population. Roman soldiers who completed their military service and married the local people have set up farms during their retirement, passing on their skills in cheesemaking.
Wherever the Roman Empire extended, the expertise on cheese also spread, until it was known throughout Europe. By 300 A.D., Romans regularly exported cheese to European countries along the Mediterranean seaboard. Cheese trade developed to the extent that Emperor Diocletian had to fix maximum prices for a range of cheese products. But there was another cheese that was sold under the brand name “La Luna,” and it was believed to be the ancestor of today’s parmesan cheese, which was first deemed as a cheese variety in 1579.
During the decline of the Roman Empire until the discovery of America, cheese was made and improved by the monks in European monasteries. Cheesemaking slowly spread through voyages from Rome to Southern and Central Europe. However, developments in cheesemaking slowed down because of the displacement of people due to wars. Production became limited in remote mountainous areas where they naturally used cheese and goat milk.
During the 10th century, Italy became the cheesemaking center of Europe because of their many original creations. France also developed a wider range of cheeses, which are likened to the cheese types produced in some Mediterranean areas. However, little developments in making new cheese types happened during the Dark Ages. And the first cheese factory only opened in late Renaissance – in Switzerland during 1815.
Meanwhile in Asia, people still not consider cheese to be a regular staple in their diets (and many Asians are lactose intolerant). If you would observe, Chinese food have no cheese, so cheesemaking seems like an unusual activity for China. However, there were evidences of cheesemaking in China during the Ming Dynasty (around 13th to 17th century), wherein the Bai people made cheeses called “rushan” and “rubing.” These are still made and eaten by the Bai and Sani people of China today. Mongolians and Tibetans also have a long history of cheese making, and they are believed to have influenced the development of cheese making in China. Native cheese varieties were also made in India, Philippines, and Nepal.
Okay, back to the Western world where cheese was really widespread. As the Pilgrims of England travelled to America in 1620, they included cheese in their supplies. Some of them brought a cow or two with them to be able to make cheese. Cheese making spread quickly to local farms. The New England colonies of Rhode Island, Eastern Massachusetts and Connecticut became the country’s first dairymen in the 1600s.
When the settlers continued to move west unto Vermont, upstate New York and Ohio, they provided cheese and developed cheesemaking until the New England was no longer the “capital” of cheesemaking in America. Aurora, Ohio became the center of cheese production in Ohio since 1808. It was called “Cheesedom” for around 50 years. For more than 150 years, Ohio and New York became the source of the majority of cheese produced in the United States.
New York became the home of the first commercial cheese factory in the US. In 1851, a dairy farmer named Jesse Williams started making cheese in an assembly-line production, using milk from neighboring dairy farms. Williams also established the first of the many dairy associations in the US, which sprouted within decades.
Meanwhile in Wisconsin, there was a whole cheesemaking industry going on, too. During the 1830s and onwards, immigrants from Switzerland, Germany and Norway had arrived in the country and started several communities in the interior of the state. They brought their dairy farming and cheesemaking practices with them. Before that, the European settlers were busy farming wheat, but they encountered a lot of problems that caused serious decline within just a few decades. Then, they thought of dairying as an alternative. It was faced with resistance of the locals at first, since dairy farming was even harder than growing wheat, but it took off eventually.
Housewives became responsible for processing farm milk into cheese. In 1841, a Wisconsin housewife named Anne Pickett made history when she created the first cheesemaking kitchen factory using rented cows from her neighbors. His brother John J. Smith, collected milk curds from neighboring farms, and built a structure to press them into cheese during the late 1950s. But it was hard to control cheese quality with this kind of system. Their other brother, Hiram Smith, started the first full-scale cheese factory in 1859. He bought milk from the neighboring farmers, rather than curds, and processed it for a percentage of the finished cheese.
However, the person that was credited with creating the “real thing,” or the real first cheese factory, was Chester Hazen. In 1864, he built a large factory in Ladoga, Wisconsin. It was a building separated from the farm house and it operated separately from other farm operations. Hazen bought milk from neighboring farms to turn into cheese, and shipped his products out of the state. After just a year in operation, he was processing milk from more than 300 cows.
But Hazen’s story wasn’t smooth-flowing after he built the factory. His factory and the whole cheese factory system was met with as much resistance as dairy farming once had. It was hard to sell Wisconsin cheese because nobody heard of it, quality control was still a problem, and cheesemaking was still considered a housewives’ job. And that’s when dairy farmers associations came to the rescue. With their help, cheese was marketed outside the state, cheesemaking processes became more refined, and cheesemaking became a full-blooded professional job.
The success of Hazen’s factory pushed the other hesitant wheat farmers to join the dairy farming bandwagon. The cheesemaking industry was truly flourishing and growing in the state that many immigrants moved to Wisconsin specifically to make cheese. The German settlers who produced limburgers and the Swiss who made Swiss-type cheeses, convinced cheddar-making New Yorkers to join them in Wisconsin. Immigrant Italians and Dutch also came, and they popularized their own ethnic cheese varieties. The census in 1850 revealed that more than 400,000 pounds of cheese was produced on Wisconsin farms in 1849. Later on, Wisconsinites invented their own types of cheeses as well. And these are mostly the reasons why Wisconsin became “America’s Dairyland.”
The mass production of rennet pushed cheesemaking to a whole new and improved level, maintaining consistent flavor and quality in cheese, and making cheese production faster and easier. Forty years later, scientists began producing pure microbial cultures to replace recycled whey, making way to the production of standardized cheese. The mass production of cheese also made it more accessible to the poorer classes. Cheaper storage solutions to prolong cheese life also became in demand, such as cheese bells and ceramic cheese dishes. When home refrigerators were introduced in 1913, the fridge became the standard storage for cheese.
During World War II, factory-made cheese became more preferred over traditionally-made cheese. Since then, factories served as the source of the most of cheese in America and Europe.