The art of cheese making is an ancient skill predating recorded history – showing that cheese was more important than writing things down.
Ancient Greeks believed the skill of making cheese must have been gifted to them by the god Aristaeus, whose name literally means “the best”. Embedded deep in human history, used in every country in the world and spread across countless dishes throughout the millennia, yet cheese still hasn’t received the praise it deserves. As English writer, poet and philosopher Gilbert Chesterton said: “The poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese.”
Cheese, despite its many uses, varieties and tastes, was most likely first produced by complete accident.The origin of cheese-making is not definitively known, although Europe, Central Asia, the Middle East and even the Sahara have been offered as possible locations.
The discovery, not invention, of cheese is likely tied to the early domestication of animals over 12,000 years ago. Travelling groups of early humans would travel long distances carrying the milk of their livestock in watertight sacks made from animal stomachs. The movement and heat of travel would curdle the milk, meaning cheese was inevitable. Cheese grew massively in popularity – it was easily portable, long-lasting, contained high amounts of fat and protein, and complemented most foods. Trade of cheese between nations grew as the variety of cheese textures, tastes and cooking methods were explored and developed.
Legendary Roman author Pliny the Elder recorded that various exotic cheese became popular foreign goods to the sophisticated denizens of ancient Rome.This spread of food and ideas led to hundreds of different cheeses being produced in various countries, primarily in Europe.Most modern kinds of cheese were first recorded from the fifth century onward, and they’ve only grown in number and diversity since. While cheese was popular in Europe, it was tragically unheard of in the Far East and early Americas until its modern spread through European advancement across the globe.
Europeans carried the tradition of using cheese with them to America, meaning cheese was a prominent staple in the country that to this day dominates and influences global media. Switzerland was the first nation to open an industrial cheese factory in 1815, providing large-scale production to Europe. But you won’t be surprised to learn that cheese was truly launched into the mass-market by the United States. New York dairy farmer Jesse Williams began making cheese on an efficient assembly-line that used local milk to mass produce cheese in 1851. This kick-started the modern dairy industry in America. Biographer Frederick Rahmer had high praise for Jesse’s efforts, saying: “Jesse Williams had become by far the best cheese maker in this country and perhaps the world.”
Cheese’s radical differences in taste, texture and style are dependent on the animal producing the milk, the fat content, pasteurisation and the all-important bacteria and mould used to transform the milk. Cheese is made using fresh milk, usually warm. That’s where the constants end – everything else is subject to change. The milk then needs to be acidified, which is done several ways, depending on the cheese you’re making. Now the cheese needs to coagulate so that the milk proteins can link together to form the structure of the cheese. A common coagulant is rennet, either traditional rennet, extracted from an animal’s stomach, or a bacterial rennet.
The coagulant turns the milk into a soft gel, which is then cut into smaller curds. The size determines the amount of moisture retained by the cheese. The cheese still needs to let the acid develop and it’s stirred in a large container of water. The cheese is then drained and set aside to age. Aging is an important process in determining the cheese you’ll produce. Salting is often used to transform the cheese into something more complex. The length of time the cheese spends aging is obvious in its end result.Some cheeses, such as blue cheese, develop a layer of mould that adds to the flavour. Several cultures have introduced the use of herbs, spices and other additives to further explore the flavour potential of cheese. Most cheese available commercially starts life as cow’s milk, but some cheeses originate in more exotic animals. Some parts of the world commonly produce milk from goats and sheep.
In the Zasavica Special Nature Reserve in Serbia they make a unique cheese, which holds the title of the most expensive on the planet. This cheese, made from the milk of Balkan donkeys, is called pule and costs roughly $1500 per kilo. This true delicacy is white in colour with a crumbly texture. Despite our location on the underside of the world, Australia is no stranger to cheese crafting and we’re home to many award-winning cheeses. The Australian Specialist Cheesemakers’ Association promotes and co-ordinates cheesemaking education and training while also organising public events for cheese enthusiasts. Montefiore in Victoria has crafted an Italian-style of cheese known as trecce, which is hand stretched and plaited. Lion Dairy and Drinks in Tasmania has developed a wheel of artisanal cheese, their King
Island Dairy Black Label Double Brie, a cheese as sophisticated as its label. Fowlers Cheese in the Bay of Fires produce a 12-month aged cheddar, overseen by Ian Fowler, a 13th generation cheesemaker. Surprisingly, the Northern Territory had a cheesemaker until a few years ago. Top End Buffalo, which was run by Geoff and Sharon Arthur, made various cheeses from the milk of buffaloes before closing operations in 2015 – a couple of years after poor Geoff was attacked by one of his buffaloes and nearly killed. Cheese is tasty and nutritional tucker that can be made from the milk of many animals. We wonder what platypus cheese would taste like.