The earliest evidence we have of the act of intentional cheesemaking are shards of pottery from vessels designed to store milk, and to strain curds, dated to around 5,500 BCE and discovered in present day Poland. No doubt, the initial discovery of curdling milk came about even earlier, following the domestication of sheep somewhere around 10,000 – 8,000 BCE.
The earliest domesticated sheep were used for meat and leather and later for wool and milk. Although milk was a good source of protein and calcium, it was also a highly perishable product, of limited use beyond the people caring for the herd. But, imagine a traveler, carrying a batch of his herd’s milk from one isolated village to the next. The milk would have likely been stored in some sort of a pouch, and a sheep’s stomach would have been just the right size. Young ruminant animal stomachs are lined with a particular set of enzymes, which are very effective milk coagulants, turning liquid milk into solid digestible curds and liquid whey.
The enzymes would have worked their magic on the milk as it was jostled around in the warm environment and upon reaching his destination, the traveler would have been surprised to find his milk had changed into a solid white mass of curd floating in a thin, yellowish pool of whey.
Over time, with a bit of curiosity and investigation, the transformation that took place in that bag came to be understood, controlled and refined to allow our ancestors to make a nutritious food product that could be preserved for an extended period of time with added salt and controlled aging practices. Even with all of the innovation since those early days of cheesemaking, the basic practice of cheesemaking remains remarkably the same.