Cheese. Whether hard like cheddar or soft like brie, processed or organic, made in the US, France, Germany, England, or any other country, cheese is one of the world's most beloved - and heavily consumed - foods. According to a report by the US Department of Agriculture, in 2016 the average American ate approximately 30 pounds of cheese per year.
Most food historians believe it was explorers from Asia who introduced cheese and cheese-making processes to the world more than 8,000 years ago, and that it was the Pilgrims who brought it to North America in the early 1600s.
But those concepts are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to “cheesy” history. Here are some stories to provide a more thorough understanding of how different types of cheese were invented and gained popularity.
A popular, hard cheese named after the village of Cheddar in Somerset, England, cheddar comes from unpasteurized cow's milk. A key process in its production involves pressing the fresh curd with a heavy weight to squeeze out the moisture; doing this allows the cheese to last much longer.
The village of Cheddar has been a major player in England's dairy industry since at least the 15th century. But some historians believe the Romans may have brought the recipe for the cheese to England from the Cantal region of France. The first known reference to cheddar dates back to the year 1170, when King Henry II purchased more than 10,000 pounds of the cheese at a cost of one farthing per pound.
It was the Pilgrims who first brought cows and cheese - including cheddar - to what would later become the US.
Cottage cheese, a creamy dairy product known for its popularity among dieters and also called “curds and whey,” has been around for thousands of years. The ancient Egyptians are thought to have created the earliest version of cottage cheese by using reed mats to strain the whey out of goat's milk.
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Monks Invented Washed Rind Cheeses - The Stinky Ones!
The term “washed rind” cheese can describe any type of cheese with a brine-washed or moistened rind. Many people refer to these as “monastery” or “monastic” cheeses because of the way they were allegedly invented.
Washed rinds first began appearing in Belgium, the Netherlands, and Northern France during the Middle Ages. According to legend, a 12th-century monk was using salted beer to clean the walls of a cheese cellar. As he was cleaning, he decided to brush the salted beer onto the cheese. After a few brushes, the cheese turned orange and began to develop a funky smell. When he sampled it, he found it had a creamy texture and a strong roasted flavor.
Monks and nuns began making cheese as a way to feed themselves when they couldn't eat meat for religious reasons; cheese was a good alternate source of protein. They also sold the cheese to financially support the monasteries. Among the many types of “monastic” cheeses are Époisses (named for a village in northeastern France) and Munster (named for the eponymous Alsatian town and the Latin word monasterium, meaning “monastery.")
Made from sheep's milk - the word pecora means sheep in Italian - pecorino cheese is produced in three different regions: Rome (pecorino Romano), Sardinia (pecorino Sardo), and south of Tuscany (pecorino Toscano). Because it was originally made by shepherds from milk produced during their travels from region to region in search of the best pastures, there's no known date as to when the cheese came into existence.
However, it was definitely around during the days of Ancient Rome. In fact, Roman soldiers received a mandatory daily ration of 27 grams (approximately an ounce) of this cheese. Columella (4 BCE - c. 70 CE) was a prominent agricultural expert who wrote a detailed account of every step involved in pecorino production. More than 2,000 years later, people still use those same rules.
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An Unearthed Egyptian Tomb Contained A Cheese That Was About 3,200 Years Old
In 2010, archaeologists digging at a burial site near Cairo discovered the tomb of Ptahmes, a mayor of the ancient city of Memphis and scribe to Pharaoh Seti I some 3,200 years ago. Inside the tomb was a broken jar containing a “solidified whitish mass.” It wasn't until 2018 that this mass was identified as remnants of cheese.
This discovery provided the first evidence of cheese production in ancient Egypt. In an interview with the BBC, Dr. Enrico Greco, who helped to identify the substance, said “the material analyzed is probably the most ancient archaeological solid residue of cheese ever found to date.” However, he admitted that while “we know it was made mostly from sheep's and goat's milk… for me it's really hard to imagine a specific flavor.”
Chemistry professor and cheese historian Paul Kindstedt had a more specific opinion; he explained to the New York Times that the cheese would have had a “really, really acidy bite.”
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A famous 8th-century ruler first helped popularize the creamy French cheese known as brie, which exists in several varieties. The one thought to be the most famous, Brie de Meaux, was invented by monks of the Priory of Reuil en Brie in north-central France.
The way the story goes, in 774 Charlemagne - then King of the Franks, and in 800 the Holy Roman Emperor - came to the priory and tasted some of the monks' cheese. He loved it so much that he requested a regular delivery to his castle in Aachen, located in the far west of present-day Germany.