Cheesemaking, in some form or another, has a history stretching back at least 5,000 years. This is characteristic of the very oldest methods we turned to for producing and preserving food – concentration, fermentation and salting. Then, as now, the production of cheese enabled the nutritional and economic value of milk to be preserved and gave humans more choice over exactly when and how they consumed their food.
Traditional cheeses were produced in Britain by monasteries, farms and village co-operatives, and by the early eighteenth century the nine key territorial cheeses – cheddar, Cheshire, Lancashire, double Gloucester, red Leicester, Stilton, Wensleydale, Caerphilly and Sage Derby – were well established. However, industrialisation and urbanisation came earlier and more comprehensively to Britain, more so than to any other European country, and by the end of the Second World War traditional cheesemaking in Britain had effectively ended.
The vast majority of today’s cheese production is heavily industrialised, with many factories using computer-aided production in an effort to turn out a standardised product. Milk is pasteurised to remove wild, unpredictable bacteria and industrial starters are used in their place. Where calf rennet was once the primary choice for curdling the milk, today cheaper, non-animal coagulants are typically used in such large-scale operations.
The development and application of scientific method has also been a significant change for the manufacture of cheese, from the introduction of pasteurisation in the nineteenth century to the complex systems of milk analysis that are available today. In an effort to understand the factors that informed Stilton cheese production, for example, the cheese’s entire microbiological population was catalogued using DNA profiling, while the flavour profiles of the rind, blue and white parts were established using something called ‘gas chromatography-mass spectrometry’. These advanced methods helped identify particular yeasts that were causing batches to spoil and it is by understanding these organisms and the effects they have on the cheese that large scale producers have better control over the final result. Cheese, even industrial cheese, is still a living product.