Cheese production came after the domestication of farm animals somewhere around 8,000 -6,000 BCE in the “Fertile Crescent” area straddling Europe and Asia. It is very likely that the first animals whose milk was consumed were goats and sheep – cows weren’t domesticated until many centuries after goats and sheep. Of course, the milk that was gained from these goats and sheep wasn’t refrigerated and soured very quickly. The taste for sour milk no doubt prepared the consumer of milk for her first taste of cheese, which, in essence, is preserved spoiled milk.
As cheese is a fermented food product, it was very likely discovered by accident. Imagine an overland traveler, carrying a batch of his precious milk from one isolated village to the next. The milk would have been stored some sort of a pouch – a young sheep’s or goat’s stomach would have been just the right size. Young ruminant animal stomachs are lined with a particular set of enzymes, now called “rennet,” that is a very effective milk coagulant, meaning it turns liquid milk into solid digestible curds and liquid whey. The enzymes would only have been more effective as the milk was jostled around in the warm environment. Upon reaching his destination, the traveler opened his bag and would have been surprised to find a solid white mass of curd floating in a yellowish pool of whey. While there is no historical record of the above story, it probably occurred many times with many different people – word of mouth quickly led to a more widespread awareness of the “first cheese.”
Over time, with a bit of curiosity and investigation, the amazing transformation that took place in that bag would be understood, controlled and refined to allow our ancestors to make a tasty and nutritious food product that could be preserved for an extended period of time by using salt and aging techniques. Even with all of the innovation since those early days of cheesemaking, the basic practice of cheesemaking remains remarkably the same.