A history of cheese

At Unicorn Cheese, we take our cheese very seriously indeed. Even though we specialise in high quality Brie and Camembert cheeses, we’re partial to other types of cheese as well. We might (understandably) be a little biased when we say this, but we do think cheese is one of the most universally adored of all the dairy products out there.

A visit to your nearest supermarket or deli is all you need to be reminded of the very many varieties and different forms that cheese comes in, and we truly believe there’s a type of cheese for just about every taste bud in Australia, young or old.

As a cooking ingredient, cheese is effortless in the way it elevates a dish from mediocre to outstanding, and as a snack, there certainly aren’t too many foods out there that work just as well with a glass of expensive wine as it does for a child’s morning tea.

That being said, cheese has become so ubiquitous in our everyday diet that perhaps few people actually stop to wonder about its origins. How did cheese come about? Who discovered cheese? When did people start eating it? As it turns out, the answers to these questions are just as varied and interesting as cheese itself, because nobody knows for sure exactly when and where the first cheese was made.

The early beginnings of cheese

Experts believe the earliest cheeses originated in the Middle East, sometime around 7000 BC when humans had begun to breed livestock and discovered that some of those animals could be milked. Before humans found a way to keep their food and milk cool, thus preventing them from spoiling, making cheese was widely regarded as a useful way to preserve milk.

According to a widely told ancient legend, cheese was accidentally discovered when an Arabian merchant who was setting out for a day’s journey across the desert put his supply of milk into a pouch made from a sheep’s stomach. The enzymes in the lining of the pouch, combined with the heat of the sun, caused the milk to separate into curd and whey. That evening, the thirsty and hungry merchant drank the whey and ate the curd, the latter of which has since evolved into what we know today as cheese.

It is believed that, in time, travellers from that part of Asia brought their discovery to Europe, where they introduced the art of cheese making to the Europeans. Archaeologists have actually found evidence of cheese making that dates as far back as 6000 BC, when cow and goat’s milk cheeses were apparently stored in tall jars. Milk curdling vessels that date all the way back to 5000 BC have also been found on the shores of Lake Neufchatel in Switzerland.

Meanwhile, Sumerian bas-reliefs from ancient Babylonia, around 3500 BC, have been discovered that seem to depict the milking and curdling of cow’s milk, while Egyptian tomb murals from 2000 BC have been found that apparently show butter and cheese being made and stored in skin bags.

The spread of cheese throughout Europe – and beyond

Cheese is said to have been very popular among the Romans, particularly during the height of the Roman Empire, and the Romans are believed to have been the ones responsible for introducing cheese making to the people of England.

During the Middle Ages, cheese was largely produced by monks in the many monasteries throughout Europe, and as the art continued to spread and flourish, Italy emerged, in the 10th century, as the cheese making centre of Europe.

Many years later, when the Pilgrims boarded the Mayflower for the voyage to America in 1620, cheese was, not surprisingly, one of the many items they brought with them to the New World.

While the earliest cheeses were strained from milk curd and had salt added to preserve them for longer, the spread of the art of cheese making from warm climates to the cooler regions of Northern Europe meant that less salt was needed.

Whereas people in warmer countries usually made their cheese daily and ate them fresh due to the hot weather, the Europeans quickly realised that their cheese didn’t spoil quite as quickly, eventually leading to the invention of aged, ripened and blue cheeses. In fact, many of the cheeses that we know and love today – Cheddar, Parmesan, Gouda and (our favourite) Camembert among them – were actually first invented in Europe during the Middle Ages.

Cheese for everyone

Cheese didn’t become a mass-produced food until around 1815, when the first cheese factory was built in Switzerland. Scientists soon discovered how to mass-produce rennin, the enzyme responsible for turning milk into cheese, following which the cheese industry was born.

The industrial food revolution in America also paved the way for the invention of processed cheese, which combines natural cheese with milk, emulsifiers, stabilisers, flavouring and colouring. The production of (and demand for) processed cheese spiked during the World War II years, and inexpensive, processed cheese quickly became the top choice of consumers, both in America and, later on, elsewhere around the world.

In fact, the combination of American influences and European emigrants is credited with introducing cheese to the rest of the world, particularly other parts of Asia, where cheese isn’t traditionally a part of the diets of most cultures there, as well as further away countries such as Australia.

These days, with the industrial revolution immortalised in history books, and with vintage, homemade foods and goods becoming exceedingly trendy, handmade artisan cheeses are making a comeback.

At the same time, specialty cheeses, once upon a time associated only with gourmet dining and food connoisseurs, are now practically commonplace. From the rich, creamy taste of Brie cheeses to the tasty bite of the aged Cheddar varieties, from the humble slices that we put in our daily sandwiches to the shredded Mozzarella that we sprinkle liberally on our pastas and pizzas, cheese can be found in almost every household, having firmly cemented its well-earned