Friday, January 27, 2012

A breif history of Cheese

The origins of cheese are shrouded in the mists of prehistory. It is believed that simple, lactic fermentation cheeses were made shortly after the domestication of sheep and goats roughly 11,000 years ago. Archaeological evidence of cheese making dates back approximately 7,000 years to the Sumerian and Mesopotamian civilizations in the Fertile Crescent between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in present day Iraq. There is also evidence of it in pre-Roman cultures in both Northern Europe and the Italian Peninsula (with the Etruscans) more than 3,000 years ago.

Homer's Odyssey, believed to have been written in the eighth century BC, mentioned Cheese making: Odysseus and his men had a run in with Polyphemus, the foul tempered Cyclops who was a Shepperd and is said to have made cheese from the milk of his ewes.

The Romans left the first written accounts of cheese and cheese making, such as in the works of Marcus Apicius in the first century BC. Making Parmesan like cheeses along the Italian Peninsula; as the Roman empire expanded, they not only exported their cheeses but also discovered local delicacies in conquered territories, ancient precursors of modern cheeses such as Cheshire and Lancashire in England; Roquefort, Cantal, and Salers in France, Mahon in Spain, and Sbrinz in Switerland.

Roquefort is perhaps the most famous cheese in all of human history. Cesar's centurions encountered it in the first century BC during their conquest of Gaul, and it was mentioned by Pliny the Elder in his Naturalis Historia dated AD 79.

Primitive forms of Brie- handmade, ladled, lactic fermented, young farmhouse types- were definitely around during Roman times and probably before. Brie style cheese in a form close to what we know today, was likely being served at least 1,200 years ago. The emperor Charlemagne enjoyed them in the eighth century BC, and they were being sold in Parisian markets as early as the 13th century.

Another decisive event in French Cheese history was the invasion of Arabs form North Africa in the early 8th century AD. The Saracens occupied the country as far north as the Loire Valley and brought their goat herding culture to the area. Although they were driven out after the battle of Tours in 732, the Loire Valley has become the most famous goat producing region in the world, including such classic place name chevres such as Selles-sur-Cher and Pouligny-Saint-Pierre.

Excerpts from "Mastering Cheese", by McCalman and Gibbons. A fabulously beautiful and informative book for anyone excited about cheese.

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