THOUSANDS OF YEARS AGO, about the time humans were discovering bread and beer and wine, some lucky ancient had a spiritual encounter with mold.
It’s impossible to assign a date or location, but cheese likely originated sometime after the domestication of sheep, perhaps 9000 B.C. There is archaeological evidence that by 7000 B.C., dairy products, including cheese, were being cultivated in the crescent between the Tigris and Euphrates. The millennia passed, civilizations came and went, and people kept playing with cheese. Circa 2000 B.C., murals painted on Egyptian graves show butter and cheese being made, along with milk being stored for dairy production.
In the Bible, King David sustains himself at a couple of key moments by munching away on the stuff. In fact, there was a place called the “Valley of the Cheesemakers.” Not surprising in the Land of Milk and Honey—the mead was probably good, too.
Meanwhile, in Central Asia, nomads carried milk in bags made from animal hides. As they wandered on their way, the milk would curdle, ferment, and form curds. Made a tasty lunch.
Homer was talking about an early version of feta in the 12th century B.C. Hundreds of years later, his compatriot Aristotle wrote about cheeses made from horse and donkey milk.
The Romans were innovators, efficiency experts who used science to improve how cheese was made (a process that previously relied mostly on dumb luck). About 400 B.C., they figured out that rennet could trigger coagulation of the curds. They used thistle flowers and fig juice to do the trick.
By the fourth century A.D., cheese had become a big import/export business throughout the Mediterranean basin. In fact, the emperor Diocletian tried to fix prices for it. The Romans even invented the concept of branding, selling a predecessor variety of Parmigiano under the label, “La Luna.”
After Rome fell, the secrets of cheese—and most other learning—eventually made their way to the monasteries. (Munster, for example, is named from the Latin, “monasterium.”) Through the Middle Ages, monks creatively pushed the boundaries of both the science and art of cheese. They developed many of the classic varieties, maybe through divine inspiration.
Along the way, different European tribes developed the art in their own ways, based at least in part on lessons first taught to them centuries earlier by the Romans. In the Alps, the Helvetica invented Emmental, a type so internally popular that canton leaders once tried to ban its export.
The Low Countries gave us Edam and Gouda. As the world’s great traders, the Dutch began waxing and well salting hard-pressed cheeses in order to extend their shelf life in transit.