I have a lot of relatives in Wisconsin. My Aunt Bertha used to own a small grocery store in Soldiers Grove, before they moved the town. As you might imagine, she sold a lot of cheese. Since we were unaware of child labor laws we got to enjoy spending summers with her by stocking shelves and watching her chain smoke Lucky Strikes. We also got to eat cheese. Well, today, I was wandering around some science sites trying to pretend I understood anything when I noticed a little video tucked away at the bottom of the page. It was the purported history of cheese. It turned out to be more of a bullet point look at a recent discovery, which I’ll get to in a moment, rather than a true history of cheese but it got me to thinking. Even here, where I try to limit my subject matter to beer, boobs and borbarygmi (it’s amazing what I retained while listening to George Carlin in the 70’s), we have been forced to look at some serious subjects and try to discuss them intelligently. Easier typed than done. So when I see a softball like the history of cheese I swing for the fences. Speaking of which, my buddy Warren Johnson has been elected into the 16 inch Softball Hall of Fame.
Okay, back to cheese.
Archaeologists in Poland have announced they found the oldest physical evidence of cheese making in the world.
The history of cheese received an important update yesterday, when it was reported that a team of archaeologists digging along the banks of the Vistula River in Poland unearthed hole-studded shards of pottery, dating from 7,500 years ago, that have been conclusively identified as cheese strainers.
Now, if you’re thinking from that opening statement that I’m making light of this discovery, I’m not. The history of cheese is actually a very important part of the development of our culture and society.
Tolerance of lactose in adult humans — called lactase persistence — is a relatively recent development, and at a time before this tolerance spread in the population, separating milk into low-lactose curds and high-lactose whey allowed early humans to carry and store a very convenient source of protein.
“Making cheese is a particularly efficient way to exploit the nutritional benefits of milk, without becoming ill because of the lactose,” said Princeton University archaeologist Peter Bogucki, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Bogucki noted the perforated pottery shards during his 35 years work at the Polish dig sites, but it wasn’t until the early ’80s that he figured out what they might have been for. Visiting with friends in Vermont, he noticed their ceramic cheese strainers, and the similarities between them and the shards the archaeological team had found.
“It set off a few bells ringing,” he said, according to the LA Times.
His idea was only one of several competing hypotheses at the time, though. Others thought that they may have been part of vessels to hold burning coals, or perhaps to separate honey from honeycombs, or even in the brewing of beer.
Richard P. Evershed, a professor of biogeochemistry at the University of Bristol, became interested in Bogucki’s idea, though, and gathered a team to investigate his hypothesis.
Melanie Salque, one of Evershed’s doctoral students at the time, examined small fragments of the pottery by cleaning them of any contaminants, crushing them into a fine powder and extracting any fats that she found. Testing these fats found that they were animal fats (as opposed to those from plants or beeswax), and measuring the carbon isotopes in the fats revealed that they were from milk.
Similar milk fats were found in clay pots excavated in Turkey, which are dated at roughly 500 years before the ones found in Poland. However, the finds in Turkey, while they suggested cheese making, were not conclusive as they could have held any kind of milk product. These shards from Poland, though, with their perforations, would be quite useless for simply storing milk or other less-solid milk products, provide much stronger evidence.
“Scholars have been duking it out for decades as to what these sieves were used for,” said Paul Kindstedt, University of Vermont chemist and author of Cheese and Culture: A History of Cheese and Its Place in Western Civilization, who was not involved in the research. “This new finding is really definitive —beyond a reasonable doubt—that this utensil was used for cheese making.”
Okay, that’s all well and good, but where does cheese come from? Well, like lots of cool things (language, numbers, astrology, etc.), the Middle East.
Legend has it that, about 8,000 years ago, an Arab merchant was using animal bladders to store milk on his way to market. Due to the heat and other conditions the milk curdled and separated into curds and whey. Not sure what to do and not wanting to lose the sale, he ate the curds.
I should note that cheese curds are still a delicacy today.
Anyway, he didn’t die, the stuff was tasty and, unlike raw milk, it was easy to digest.
Early cheeses would have been saltier than what we are used to since early farmers would have used mined salt to preserve their foods. That would have given those cheeses a texture and flavor similar to feta, a fan fave around here.
Think of cheese this way, it is a direct link to history. Homer’s Cyclops had racks of cheese and lamb meat. Jesus ate cheese. In fact it is highly likely that He enjoyed a nice Jibneh Arabieh with His mug of wine. Cleopatra ate cheese, Socrates ate cheese, Genghis Khan ate cheese, Taras Bulba ate cheese and on and on it goes.
So grab a hunk of cheese and join the pantheon of greatness.
You’ve earned it.