The history of cheeses
The history of cheese somewhat resembles the history of France. It crosses paths with Charlemagne and Napoleon, mixes with the role of monks and monasteries, and contributes to the development of scientific research. The history of French cheesemaking is age-old!
Human consumption of milk dates back to the first farms, from 11,000 to 6,000BC, depending on the region of the world. Goats were the first animals to be domesticated, and cattle farming did not come until 3000 years later. Thanks to farming, Neolithic hunters could organise food management and no longer needed to hunt for food.
Curd, a natural result of milk that has coagulated, was soon used after this. In fact, cheese production can be traced back to 2500BC, with the first curd moulds discovered in Mesopotania as well as on Sumerian bas-reliefs. The history of cheese continues with the Pharaohs and their cheese urns, which were buried with them for the afterlife, and Homer, who, in the Odyssey, tells of how Polyphemus, the Cyclops, places curd in finely woven baskets in order to strain it. The first to write about the different stages required in the cheesemaking process was the Roman agronomist Columella in 60AD.
After the fall of the Roman empire, several cheese recipes had already disappeared. But some production secrets remained hidden in monasteries which continued to make cheese. Many of their recipes, such as Maroilles, Munster and Pont-L’Évêque, still exist today.
From the 13th century, production began to grow on French farms. Peasants invented regional cheeses. The first cheese cooperative was founded at this time by women in search of a source of income and who wanted to take advantage of dairy production. This was the start of a French tradition based on the idea that cheesemaking was something almost exclusively done by women, with recipes and know-how passed down from mothers to daughters and improved upon little by little. At this time, in order to keep the cheese fresh and transport a fragile material, the sale and consumption was limited to local markets.
With the restoration of peace, trade began again. With pilgrimages and the growth of thermal cures in France (after 1850) and the establishment of paid holidays (from 1936), cheese was no longer confined to its regions and began to be transported across borders.
“Delicate, living material in which nestles identity and traditions, cheese exudes the soul of the earth and its inhabitants.” Pierre Androuët, master cheesemaker and food critic; member of the French Institute of Taste.
Since Columella’s description in 60AD, the basic principles of cheesemaking have essentially remained the same: milk clotting, salting and drying. Textures, tastes and flavours having only developed through the creativity and know-how of different people.
Variations in terms of temperature and heating of the milk, choice of ferment, cutting of the curd, size of the grains, mixing, heating, pressing time and intensity, placing in brine, washing or brushing of the rind, degree of humidity and temperature of the cheese maturation caves. It is the combination of these different elements that results in the extraordinary diversity of cheeses made in France.
And France has a lot more cheeses than regions! Each of them has a distinctive taste, shape and texture. Symbolic, authentic and nourishing, cheese has remained a subject of national pride in France, the world’s leading consumer of cheese.
Did you know?
Roquefort has always been produced and matured in the village of Roquefort. This was consolidated by Charles VI who, in 1393, granted the monopoly for the maturation of the cheese to the inhabitants of the village. All successive kings renewed this privilege, which in some way formed the basis of the concept of the protected designation of origin (AOP) used in Europe.
The key dates of cheese
– 3 million years BC: Prehistoric/Palaeolithic
- Use of fire
- The first tools
- Cooking food
– 10,000BC: Neolithic
- The dawn of farming (Middle East, Asia, Europe)
– 3000BC: The Bronze Age
- First strainer to drain curd and make cheese
- First churns used by the Sumerians for butter making.
- First cheeses in Mesopotania and India
– 1000BC: The iron age
- Regular production of butter in India
– 500BC: Gaul barrels
- Cheese is eaten by Roman soldiers
– 100BC: Roman Empire
- First large pressed cheeses
- Brie and Roquefort appear
- Hoards of Vikings settle in Normandy
- Monasteries play a crucial role in the production and maturation of cheeses and create numerous cheeses (Munster, Beaufort, Gruyère, St Marcellin, etc.)
- Invention of the dash churn
- Other cheeses appear: Comté, Saint Nectaire, etc.
- 1180: The word “cheese” first appears in the French language
- 1267: First « cooperatives » in France
- Use of rennet to preserve cheese
The Age of Exploration and the Renaissance
- Milk is sold in towns. First health regulations
- Mongols spread the use of fermented milk by their invasions
- Creation of Neufchâtel cheese in Braye
- 1500: Emergence of Reblochon
- Butter appears on the tables of the nobility in France
- Invention of the hand crank churn
- Exchange of cheesemaking know-how and techniques across Europe
- Vatel creates Chantilly for Louis XIV
The Age of Enlightenment
- Cheese begins to be sent over long journeys (Livarot arrives in Paris)
- First animal health measures
- Livestock improvement by crossbreeding
- Creation of Mont d’Or Vacherin cheese
- First veterinarian schools
- Founding of agronomic science by agricultural schools
- Improvement of cattle breeds by approved crossbreeding
- 1791: Farmer Marie Harel, from Normandy, invents Camembert
- Agricultural growth thanks to science. Establishment of agricultural schools
- 1840: Petit Suisse
First Industrial Revolution
- “Dairy farms” were established to provide people living in cities with fresh milk
- 1857: Partial vacuum evaporation was used to obtain evaporated milk
- 1860: Engineer M. Ridel invents the wooden Camembert box
- 1879: First centrifugal cream separator, in Laval
- Establishment of the first butter factories
- Birth of curing and autoclave sterilisers
- Establishment of dairy industry schools
Second Industrial Revolution thanks to the petrol-fuelled engine
- 1889: Sterilised milk launched on the market
- 1895: Duclaux develops milk pasteurisation
- 1892: Discovery of galalith, first plastic material made from milk casein
- 1902: First experimental research station at the Surgères dairy
- Butter factories
- Production and industrial packaging of milk and yogurts
- 1921: First AOC, Roquefort
- 1921 – The Laughing Cow
Third Industrial Revolution thanks to automation and space exploration
- 1935: Industrial production of cheese with pasteurised milk
- Development of chilled sections in shops
- Refrigerated trucks replace cans for milk collection
- Widespread use of milking machines and refrigeration of milk from farms
- 1954: Milk is distributed in schools
- Birth of the bulk tank
- 1953: Freeze-drying used to preserve more than 3000 lactic bacteria strains
- 1956 – Caprice des Dieux
- 1962: Creation of the CAP by the European Union
- 1967: Bacteria is filtered and milk proteins are separated and isolated (ultrafiltration and microfiltration)
- 1968: First televised advertisement for cheese in France – Boursin
- First artificial insemination of cows in France
- 1969: Quality-based milk payment in France (Godefroy law)
Fourth Industrial Revolution thanks to information technologies and biotechnology
- 1980-1990: New molecular biology techniques
- Quality approach in industry
- Integrated farming or sustainable agriculture
- Mechanical handling of cheese
- 1980: Microfiltration
- 1984: Nanofiltration. Dairy quotas introduced by the European Union
- 1999: Creation of the Charter for Good Agricultural Practices
- development of milking machines on farms
- Separation of the fine ingredients in milk / Development of ingredients (proteins, fatty acids)
- More and more accurate analytical methods (molecular, immunological, electronic, optical, etc.)
Did you know?
Use of the French term for cheese was defined by law on 12 November 2013 (law no. 2013-1010). The method of production including liquid milk and a straining phase results from this:
Cheese is a “product, fermented or otherwise, matured or otherwise, made from the following ingredients exclusively of dairy origin: milk, partially or fully skimmed milk, cream, fat, buttermilk, used alone or as a mixture, and coagulated in whole or part, before straining or partly eliminating the aqueous part. […] The minimum content of dry matter in the product thus defined must be 23 grams per 100 grams of cheese”.