No one knows for sure when the first cheese was created, or who worked out how to make it. However, we do know that it’s one of the world’s oldest manmade foods; the ancient Romans wrote about exotic foreign cheeses being exported all over the empire and cheesemaking equipment has been dated as far back as 5,500 BC in Poland.
The most popular theory is that it was invented by accident. Animal stomachs were often made into bags or vessels for all sorts of foods – it’s thought that someone was carrying milk around in one of these, and the rennet in the stomach separated it into curds and whey. These curds were then salted so they’d last longer and voila – cheese became a foodstuff.
Evidence of ancient cheesemaking has been discovered all over the world – from the Middle East and China to the Sahara Desert. But it became particularly popular in Europe as the cooler climate meant less salt was needed to preserve it, meaning they could be aged and developed with a more interesting flavour. This turned cheesemaking into an art form, and by the time of the Romans it was a highly valued ingredient.
Despite the thousands of cheeses being produced today, the basic process is always the same. It’s the way they’re pressed, moulded, aged, salted, cut, flavoured and stored, combined with the special ‘starter cultures’ used by cheesemakers, that gives us such a wide variety of tastes and textures.