Blessed are the cheese makers
van Broekhoven
Cheese seems 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. We’ll 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 hadn’t 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 world’s first ever brand names was La Luna, the moon. Not hard to imagine how they invented that name.

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 Italian.

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 Homer’s 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 donor’s stomach. Interestingly, human babies produce the same material as well: it’s 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 let’s 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 sheep’s milk and goat’s milk produced a cheese typical of Sicily, whereas the blending of mare’s 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 flavour.

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 time.


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 moulds

Fig juice rennet flowing from a freshly cut branch

soldier turned cheese make



milk becomes cheese

Wim van Broekhoven is Roman re-enactment veteran and leader/founder of the Roman living history group CORBVLO. In daily life he is a professional cheese maker for Bel Leerdammer in Schoonrewoerd, Holland
©RMRS 2010