Cheese is an ancient food whose origins predate recorded history. There is no conclusive evidence indicating where cheesemaking originated, either in Europe, Central Asia or the the Middle East, but the practice had spread within Europe prior to Roman times and had become a sophisticated enterprise by the time the Roman Empire came into being. As Rome's influence receded, distinct local cheesemaking techniques emerged. This diversity reached its peak in the early industrial age and has declined somewhat since then due to mechanization and economic factors.

Cheese has served as a hedge against famine and is a good travel food. It is valuable for its portability, long life, and high content of fat, protein, calcium, and phosphorus. Cheese is lighter , more compact, and has a longer shelf life than the milk from which it is made. Cheesemakers can place themselves near the center of a dairy region and benefit from fresher milk, lower milk prices, and lower shipping costs. The substantial storage life of cheese lets a cheesemaker sell when prices are high or when money is needed.


The exact origins of cheesemaking are debated or unknown, and estimates range from around 8000 BCE (when sheep were domesticated) to around 3000 BCE. Credit for the discovery most likely goes to nomadic Turkic tribes in Central Asia, around the same time that they developed yogurt, or to people in the Middle East. A common tale about the discovery of cheese tells of an Arab nomad carrying milk across the desert in a container made from an animal's stomach, only to discover the milk had been separated into curd and whey by the rennet from the stomach.

Folktales aside, cheese likely began as a way of preserving soured and curdled milk through pressing and salting, with rennet introduced later— perhaps when someone noticed that cheese made in an animal stomach produced more solid and better-textured curds. The earliest archaeological evidence of cheesemaking has been found in Egyptian tomb murals, dating to about 2300 BCE. The earliest cheeses would likely have been quite sour and salty, similar in texture to rustic cottage cheese or feta.

From the Middle East, basic cheesemaking found its way into Europe, where cooler climates meant less aggressive salting was needed for preservation. With moderate salt and acidity, the cheese became a suitable environment for a variety of beneficial microbes and molds, which are what give aged cheeses their pronounced and interesting flavors.

Ancient Greece/ Rome[]

Ancient Greek mythology credited Aristaeus with the discovery of cheese. Homer's Odyssey (8th century BCE) describes the Cyclops making and storing sheep's and goats' milk cheese. From Samuel Butler's translation:

We soon reached his cave, but he was out shepherding, so we went inside and took stock of all that we could see. His cheese-racks were loaded with cheeses, and he had more lambs and kids than his pens could hold...
When he had so done he sat down and milked his ewes and goats, all in due course, and then let each of them have her own young. He curdled half the milk and set it aside in wicker strainers.

By Roman times, cheese was an everyday food and cheesemaking a mature art, not very different from what it is today. Columella's De Re Rustica (circa 65 CE) details a cheesemaking process involving rennet coagulation, pressing of the curd, salting, and aging. Pliny's Natural History (77 CE) devotes a chapter (XI, 97) to describing the diversity of cheeses enjoyed by Romans of the early Empire. He stated that the best cheeses came from the villages near Nîmes, but did not keep long and had to be eaten fresh. Cheeses of the Alps and Apennines were as remarkable for their variety then as now. A Ligurian cheese was noted for being made mostly from sheep's milk, and some cheeses produced nearby were stated to weigh as much as a thousand pounds each. Goats' milk cheese was a recent taste in Rome, improved over the "medicinal taste" of Gaul's similar cheeses by smoking. Of cheeses from overseas, Pliny preferred those of Bithynia in Asia Minor.

Post-classical Europe[]

Rome spread a uniform set of cheesemaking techniques throughout much of Europe, and introduced cheesemaking to areas without a previous history of it. As Rome declined and long-distance trade collapsed, cheese in Europe diversified further, with various locales developing their own distinctive cheesemaking traditions and products. France and Italy are the nations with the most diversity in locally made cheeses— today with approximately 400 each. (A French proverb holds there is a different French cheese for every day of the year, and Charles de Gaulle once asked "how can you govern a country in which there are 246 kinds of cheese?"[1]) Still, the advancement of the cheese art in Europe was slow during the centuries after Rome's fall. Many of the cheeses we know best today were first recorded in the late Middle Ages or after— cheeses like cheddar around 1500 CE, Parmesan in 1597, Gouda in 1697, and Camembert in 1791.[2]

In 1546, John Heywood wrote in Proverbes that "the moon is made of a greene cheese." (Greene refers here not to the color, as many now think, but to being new or unaged.)[3] Variations on this sentiment were long repeated. Although some people assumed that this was a serious belief in the era before space exploration, it is more likely that Heywood was indulging in nonsense.

Modern era[]

with European culture, cheese was nearly unheard of in oriental cultures, uninvented in the pre-columbian Americas, and of only limited use in sub-mediterranean Africa, mainly being widespread and popular only in Europe and areas influenced strongly by its cultures. But with the spread, first of European imperialism, and later of Euro-American culture and food, cheese has gradually become known and increasingly popular worldwide, though still rarely considered a part of local ethnic cuisine.

The first factory for the industrial production of cheese opened in Switzerland in 1815, but it was in the United States where large-scale production first found real success. Credit usually goes to Jesse Williams, a dairy farmer from Rome, New York, who in 1851 started making cheese in an assembly-line fashion using the milk from neighboring farms. Within decades hundreds of such dairy associations existed.

The 1860s saw the beginnings of mass-produced rennet, and by the turn of the century scientists were producing pure microbial cultures. Before then, bacteria in cheesemaking had come from the environment or from recycling an earlier batch's whey; the pure cultures meant a more standardized cheese could be produced.

Factory-made cheese overtook traditional cheesemaking in the World War II era, and factories have been the source of most cheese in America and Europe ever since. Today, Americans buy more processed cheese than "real", factory-made or not.[4]

  1. Quoted in Newsweek, October 1, 1962 according to The Columbia Dictionary of Quotations (Columbia University Press, 1993 ISBN 0-231-07194-9 p 345). Numbers besides 246 are often cited in very similar quotes; whether these are misquotes or whether de Gaulle repeated the same quote with different numbers is unclear.
  2. Smith, John H. (1995). Cheesemaking in Scotland - A History. The Scottish Dairy Association. ISBN 0-9525323-0-1. . Full text, Chapter with cheese timetable.
  3. Cecil Adams (1999). Straight Dope: How did the moon=green cheese myth start?. Retrieved October 15, 2005.
  4. McGee, Harold (2004). On Food and Cooking (Revised Edition). Scribner. ISBN 0-684-80001-2.  p 54. "In the United States, the market for process cheese [...] is now larger than the market for 'natural' cheese, which itself is almost exclusively factory-made."