Cheese: 8000 years in the making! The first chapter in our love affair with manipulating milk

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Cheese is one of the most uniquely varied and refined foods in the world. So meticulously formed and perfected in specific regions, we seek them out by origin and romanticize the process and the people making it. We want our Brie and Camembert to be from Îsle-de-France, our Gouda from Holland, our Parmigiano Reggiano from the Emilia Romana region in  Italy….

Cheese making’s true origins have long been forgotten, but many countries claiming the honors. Archaeological findings show it being made and stored in clay jars as far back as 6000 BC. There are murals depicting cheese making in Egyptian tombs from 2000 BC .

Cheese is mentioned in the Bible. For example, as David escaped across the River Jordan he was fed with ‘cheese of kine’ (cows) (2 Samuel 17:29), and it is said that he presented ten cheeses to the captain of the army drawn up to do battle with Saul (1 Samuel 17:18). Moreover, a location near Jerusalem called ‘The Valley of the Cheesemakers‘.

Legends about its origins abound, but one of the most commonly repeated themes is that cheese was accidentally discovered in the Mediterranean by an Arab nomad traveling through the desert.

Legend speaks of the nomad about to embark on a long journey on horseback, filling a saddlebag with milk to sustain him while crossing the desert. After hours of riding the nomad stopped to quench his thirst only to discover that his milk had separated into solid lumps and a watery liquid.

The combined heat, agitation from riding and rennets [rennet is a natural complex of enzymes produced in any mammalian stomach to digest the mother's milk, and is often used in the production of cheese. Rennet contains many enzymes, including a proteolytic enzyme (protease) that coagulates the milk, causing it to separate into solids (curds) and liquid (whey). The active enzyme in rennet is called chymosin or rennin but there are also other important enzymes in it, e.g., pepsin or lipase. There are non-animal sources for rennet that are suitable for vegetarian consumption]. The saddlebag, made of an animal’s stomach parts and lining, caused curdling of the milk and separation into curds and whey.

Cheese, cheese, delicious cheese!

The watery liquid, and the floating whey were found to be drinkable, while the curds were edible and nutritious.

What makes some cheeses kosher? First and foremost, the facility producing the cheese has to comply with kosher rules of food handling and preparation-that is obvious! The above legend gives us another reason… Renin, the enzyme that helps fermentation and coagulation, is a meat byproduct and therefore can only be used under certain conditions in the production of cheese, which is a dairy product. Luckily , nowadays, technology has yielded plant based rennets which are used to create styles of cheese we could have before! Some delicious examples of this type are kosher Parmigiano, Grana Padano, Manchego, etc. Yayyyyy!

Eran Elhalal

7 Comment(s)

  1. @Yoav Perry | Jul 9, 2010 | Reply

    Cheese history is definitely fascinating. If you follow the cheese you see at your local fromagerie you are likely to get an accurate complete history of the past 2000 years of humanity. Every rise, fall, war, rationing, religion, revolution, social change, monarchy, economic condition and even taxes have pushed people to produce a cheese that would fir the situation. Color, texture, size, fat contents and aroma of a given cheese can be traced back to the cause of “why a cheese happened”.

    You will also find many versions of the same cheese in different places, like the Swiss Emmentaland the French Comté (Or its kosher Israeli version “Emek-Tal”), or the French alpine Tomme and its Italian alpine counterpart, the Toma, or the British Cheddar and the French Cantal, Queso Fresco, Tsfatit and Paneer are all versions of the same thing in South America, Middle East and South Asia. The French Port Salut and its Scandinavian version the Esrom… and don’t even get me started on the number of countries laying claim to Feta, from the Balkans to Denmark. I would think that cheese and yogurt started in several places at different times and not by one very special nomad.

    As for kosher cheese… I am an artisanal cheesemaker and would love to one day produce the quintessential cheese of the holy land. Unfortunately, not only is the rennet un-kosher (Vegetarian rennet isn’t always a good substitute, it can bring upon bitter flavor in aged cheese), but also lipase and a host of other complex cultures are animal-derived.

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  7. Monex | Dec 28, 2010 | Reply

    According to both historical resources and the course of common sense it is understood that the first cheese was perhaps made thousands of years ago by pure chance. While animal rennet is the preferred choice for master cheese-makers it is quite expensive as it is difficult to find an adequate supply of appropriate stomachs.

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