to be as old as humanity itself and nobody knows when or how it
was invented. It may have been a hunter who discovered that the
stomach contents of a killed young animal were rather tasty. Or
it may have been that somebody stirred fresh milk with a fig tree
branch, for instance to keep the cream from rising, and found the
milk turning solid. Well never know. What we do know, however,
it that cheese, in all its numerous forms and tastes, would never
have become so popular if it hadnt been taken to the edges
of the world by the conquering Roman armies.
The Romans were very familiar with cheese. Pliny,
to the eternal chagrin of the modern Italians, wrote very enthusiastic
about a cheese from Nemausus (Nîmes) in France as being
the most popular in Rome. He also describes, around the year 40,
a recipe that clearly resembles a blue cheese like Roquefort.
The French Cantal and the English Cheddar are also copies of Roman
cheeses. The Romans exported and imported cheese from all over
the known world. One of the worlds first ever brand names
was La Luna, the moon. Not hard to imagine how they invented that
The Latin word for cheese was caseus. It
is not surprising if this sounds familiar as the modern term Cheese
stems from caseus. Likewise, so does the Dutch
kaas,German Käse, Spanish queso and Portuguese
queijo, yet these native forms of cheese were apparently
different from that introduced by the Romans. Regardless, not
only was the product itself adopted, but also the way of producing
it. This, in some cases, led to other names. For instance caseus
formaticus, cheese made in a mould (forma) developed
into the words fromage in French and formaggio in
Soldiers from the Roman army, as mentioned by Vegetius,
were usually born and bred on farms and knew the process of cheese
making very well. Some of the more luxurious houses even had special
cheese kitchens. But whereas around the Mediterranean sheep and
goat remained the preferred suppliers of milk, the farmers of
North-western Europe kept cows. Knowing that only the milk of
animals with more than four nipples, like dogs or pigs, was unsuitable
for making milk, the soldiers of Rome made cheese in a way unknown
to the local farmers. Where they made only soft cheese, which
tended to spoil rather quickly, the Romans made cheese using rennet.
This makes for a cheese which with ageing only improves in taste.
Pliny, in his arrogant wisdom, says the following: It
is a remarkable circumstance that the barbarous nations which
subsist on milk for so long have been for so many ages either
ignorant of the merits of cheese, or else have totally disregarded
it; and yet they understand how to thicken milk and form there
from an acrid kind of liquid with a pleasant flavour.
Roman soldiers would have been very familiar with the use of rennet
or coagulum as they would have called it. They would have known
it from sources as ancient as Homers Iliad and Odyssey.
The Cyclops Polyphemus runs a veritable dairy farm and
is watched by Odysseus during the process of milking sheep
and making cheese from their milk.
Soldiers would have known they could use the juice
of the fig tree as a rennet from the Iliad. For example,
Homer write in book five when Ares has been speared and blood
flows from his wound: even as the juice of the fig speedily
maketh to grow the white milk that is liquid but is quickly curdled
as a man stirreth it, even so swiftly healed the furious Ares.
The ancient sources, in this case Aristotle,
even tell us the way fig juice, in ancient Greek opos, was harvested:
The juices flowing from an incision in green bark is
caught on some wool. The wool is then washed and rinsed into a
little milk, and if this be mixed with other milk it curdles it.
But not only fig juice works as a rennet. The Roman writer Columella,
who devotes a full chapter of his book De Agricola to the
making of cheese, also mentions wild thistle (Cynara cardunculus),
the seed of saffron or rennet of animal origin like kid or lamb.
The rennet, in Greek pytia, of an animal would be found
in the stomach of the still milk drinking young where it would
curdle through the action of the enzyme called chymosine.
Today the enzyme is produced using a chemical process, but in
earlier times rennet would have been extracted from the material
found in the animal donors stomach. Interestingly, human
babies produce the same material as well: its the stuff
that soils your clothes when they burp!
The use of rennet would have been quite a revelation
to the farmers. The combination of cows milk and rennet left its
mark on Dutch history for it made possible the typical hard durable
cheese for which Holland became famous. It is quite possible that
retired Roman soldiers, who quite frequently remained in the area
they were once stationed, took up the trade of professional cheese-makers
starting a new and lasting industry in the area. Along the Dutch
part of the old Roman border, the Limes, quite a few cities
sprang up whose names are forever linked with cheese. Woerden,
Bodegraven and lets not forget Gouda, a name
that has in several languages become synonymous with cheese.
Experiments in producing and storing cheese across
the ancient world created as wide a variety of cheese types as
abundant today. For example, the mixing of sheeps milk and
goats milk produced a cheese typical of Sicily, whereas
the blending of mares milk and the milk of the she-ass produced
Phrygian cheese. The use of salt, brine or herbs all produced
new delicacies. According to Columella, some people dropped
green pine cones in the bucket before milking and only removed
them after curdling, or let thyme, strained through a sieve, coagulate
with the milk. The smoke of an oven, preferably that using apple
tree wood, made brined cheese even more durable and added a pleasant
Cheeses of all kinds of flavour and various shapes
and sizes appeared all over the Roman world: Meta
or pyramid formed cheeses from Sassina in North-eastern
Italy, the square quadrate of Tolose (Toulouse)
to name but two. Cheeses weighing 1000 pounds are mentioned in
the sources together with the little caseolus. Indeed,
a small cheese mould of caseolus size found in Bodegraven
was probably once used by a soldier to make a cheese that was
easy to carry on patrols.
The recipes mentioned by Columella and other
classical authors are, at least for trained cheese-makers familiar
with the amounts and temperatures involved, easy to understand
and reproduce. Experiments by the author with authentically reconstructed
tools have recreated cheeses that would suit very well the tastes
of some members of a modern audience. And why not. When after
dinner we choose a cheese platter as our dessert we continue the
old Roman tradition. It was probably a polite Roman host, who
knew that his guest could be lactose intolerant, who introduced
his guest to a choice of fruits and sweets.
It is the versatility of cheese that guaranteed
its survival through the ages; it is something for everyone for
every time of day. Whether sharp and dry or creamy and soft, whether
its scent is delicately aromatic or downright smelly, cheese has
been with us for a long time and will be with us for an even longer
The various Works of Pliny, Homer, Aristotle and Columella.
Kaas uit het hart by Jos van Riet.
Food in the Ancient World by Andrew Dalby.
Panis Militaris by Marcus Junkelmann.
Tools of the trade various cheese