The Discovery of Cheese! (or, eat your heart out Christopher Columbus)

This Week at Saxelby Cheesemongers

The world of American farmstead cheese is a wee tiny blip on the radar in the evolutionary history of fermented milk foods. While we’ve been re-discovering our cheese heritage over the past 20 years or so, other cultures have been making cheese for millenia. References to cheese making sprout up like mushrooms all throughout the history of civilization. Homer made mention of it in ‘The Odyssey,’ remnants of cheese and earthenware cheese making pots were found in the pharaohs’ tombs of Egypt, and even little David, who slew the giant Goliath, was a shepherd en route to deliver cheeses to his brothers when he was forced into his unlikely battle.

No one is really sure how cheese was ‘invented’ per se, but there seem to have been a number of factors conspiring that in the end, made cheese making possible. Back in the day when humans were hunter gatherers, there was no time, and indeed no feasible way to make cheese. All those wild goats, sheep, and cattle had absolutely zero interest in being milked by human hands. I mean, come on, can you imagine your average mammoth skin wearing dude approaching a tiny goat or sheep on a hillside somewhere yodeling ‘here goaty goaty…’ and getting any kind of favorable response? I think not.

So, with the domestication of livestock and the advent of shepherding came the stability necessary to make cheese. The shepherds tended the pastureland to nourish their flock, and were also attuned to the natural reproductive cycles of their animals that allowed them regular access to fresh milk. Legend has it that one cool and crispy night, a shepherd left his pot of milk too close to the fire and when he went to drink it, got a thick and curdy surprise. Legend also has it that on a hot summer day, the shepherd left his pot of milk out in the sun a bit too long (perhaps he’d had some wine with lunch?) and came back to discover the same thing. Curds in place of milk. That, fellow caseophiles, is the most simple kind of cheese. The milk curdles, is drained through some kind of apparatus (the earliest examples were wire baskets and earthenware pots with tons of tiny holes punched in them) and is salted and eaten fresh. Yum!

Another step in the evolutionary cheese chain was the discovery of rennet. Rennet is an enzyme found in the fourth stomach of a calf, and is used to coagulate milk, changing it from a liquid to a solid mass of curd. So, let’s revisit our unsuspecting shepherd friend, the one who left the pot of milk out in the sun for a brief minute…

Bags made from animal stomachs were commonplace way back when, and were frequently used to transport liquids during travel. They were lighter and more compact than clay pots, and could be slung over the shepherd’s back, like a little ready-made purse full o’ milk (or wine, or water). So our shepherd goes out journeying with a skin filled with milk, pauses for a moment to whet his whistle, raises his bag to take a drink, and… surprise! Nary a drop of milk falls. The milk, with the aid of the rennet has curdled, and is now more of a yogurt or kefir-like substance. Rennet was found to be a more stable and reliable method of coagulating milk and is now the most widely used coagulant in cheese making. Thank goodness for hapless shepherds.

And so it has gone throughout the years… cheese is pretty much a history of one happy accident after another, yielding ever-more delightful varieties of dairy goodness. And we lucky Americans are on the precipice of a veritable cheese explosion, as more folks decide to take up cheese making, learning from pioneers of the American artisan cheese movement of the 70’s and 80’s or from apprenticing with European farmers. So, if you’re not sure how to spend your Monday off, why not celebrate the discovery of cheese?!

And if you’d like to discover how to make cheese for yourself, don’t forget! Our next Day A-Whey is coming up on Sunday, October 28th. Reserve your spot now! They’re going like cheese cakes.

A Day A-Whey
Day Trip to Sprout Creek Farm and Mead Orchard
Sunday, October 28th
8:30 am to 6:00 pm

Join Saxelby Cheesemongers for our next Day A-Whey! The fall foliage will be breathtaking, the cows will be a-milking, and the apples ripe for the picking. Sit back, relax, and let us do the driving. All you have to bring is your appetite!

for tickets ($85) and more information, visit:

One thought on “The Discovery of Cheese! (or, eat your heart out Christopher Columbus)

  1. I’ve just read about you in Gourmet News. What a wonderful website you have. I love the colors! I will be checking back often to read the news and here of your adventures in cheese!

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