One of the most common dairy products to have in many cultures tables is cheese. How did cheese got to our tables? Let’s talk about cheese

The history

According to ancient records passed down through the centuries, the making of cheese dates back more than 4,000 years yet, no one really knows who made the first cheese. According to an ancient legend, it was made accidentally by an Arabian merchant who put his supply of milk into a pouch made from a sheep’s stomach, as he set out on a day’s journey across the desert.

The rennet in the lining of the pouch, combined with the heat of the sun, caused the milk to separate into curd and whey. That night he found that the whey satisfied his thirst, and the cheese (curd) had a delightful flavor which satisfied his hunger.

Travelers from Asia are believed to have brought the art of cheese making to Europe. In fact, cheese was made in many parts of the Roman Empire when it was at its height. The Romans, in turn, introduced cheese making to England. During the middle Ages-from the decline of the Roman Empire until the discovery of America-cheese was made and improved by the monks in the monasteries of Europe.

For example, Gorgonzola was made in the Po Valley in Italy in 879 A.D., and Italy became the cheese making center of Europe during the 10th Century. Roquefort was also mentioned in the ancient records of the monastery at Conquest, France as early as 1070.

Cheese making continued to gain popularity in Europe and became an established food. In fact, the Pilgrims included cheese in the Mayflower’s supplies when they made their voyage to America in 1620. The making of cheese quickly spread in the New World, but until the 19th century it remained a local farm industry. The first factory for the industrial production of cheese opened in Switzerland in 1815, but it was in the United States where large-scale production first found real success.

Credit usually goes to Jesse Williams, a dairy farmer from Rome, New York, who in 1851 started making cheese in an assembly-line fashion using the milk from neighboring farms. Within decades hundreds of such dairy associations existed.

The Name

The word cheese comes from Latin caseus, from which the modern word casein is also derived. The earliest source is from the proto-Indo-European root *kwat-, which means “to ferment, become sour”.More recently, cheese comes from chese (in Middle English) and cīese or cēse (in Old English). Similar words are shared by other West Germanic languages—West Frisian tsiis, Dutch kaas, German Käse, Old High German chāsi—all from the reconstructed West-Germanic form *kāsī, which in turn is an early borrowing from Latin.

When the Romans began to make hard cheeses for their legionaries’ supplies, a new word started to be used: formaticum, from caseus formatus, or “molded cheese” (as in “formed”, not “moldy”). It is from this word that the French fromage, proper Italian formaggio, Catalan formatge, Breton fourmaj, and Provençal furmo are derived. Of the Romance languages, Spanish and Portuguese and many Tuscan and Southern Italian dialects use words derived from caseus (queso, queijo and caso for example). The word cheese itself is occasionally employed in a sense that means “molded” or “formed”. Head cheese uses the word in this sense.

The process

Almost everyone loves one type of cheese or another, whether it’s delectably mild, creamy and soft or pungent, hard and crumbly. Cheese can be broken down into two very broad categories—fresh and ripened (aged). Within these basic categories, however, are a multitude of subdivisions, usually classified according to the texture of the cheese and how it was made.

Naturally, many of these categories overlap because a cheese can have an entirely different character when young than it does when aged. Most cheese begins as milk, usually cow’s, goat’s or sheep’s, that is allowed to thicken sometimes with the addition of rennin or special bacteria, until it separates into a liquid (whey) and semisolids (curd).

The whey is drained off and the curds are either allowed to drain or pressed into different shapes, depending on the variety. At this stage it is called fresh (or unripened) cheese. Among the most popular fresh cheeses on the market today are cottage cheese, cream cheese, pot cheese and ricotta. In order to become a ripened (or aged) cheese, the drained curds are cured by a variety of processes including being subjected to heat, bacteria, soaking and so on.

The curds are also sometimes flavored with salt, spices or herbs and some, like many cheddars, are colored with a natural dye.

Curding usually is done by acidifying (a process of souring) the milk and adding rennet The acidification can be accomplished directly by the addition of an acid, such as vinegar, in a few cases (paneer, queso fresco). More commonly starter bacteria are employed instead which convert milk sugars into lactic acid.

The same bacteria and the enzymes they produce also play a big role in the ultimate flavor of aged cheeses. Most cheeses are made with starter bacteria from the Lactococcus, Lactobacillus, or Streptococcus families. Swiss starter cultures also include Propionibacter shermani, which produces carbon dioxide gas bubbles during aging, giving Swiss cheese its holes (also called “eyes”).

Some fresh cheeses are curdled only by acidity, but most cheeses also use rennet, which sets the cheese into a strong and rubbery gel compared to the fragile curds produced by acidic thickening alone. It also allows curdling at a lower acidity—important because flavor-making bacteria are inhibited in high-acidity environments.

In general, softer, smaller, fresher cheeses are curdled with a greater proportion of acid to rennet than harder, larger, longer-aged varieties.
At this point, the cheese has set into a very moist gel. Some soft cheeses are now essentially complete: they are drained, salted, and packaged. For most of the rest, the curd is cut into small cubes. This allows water to drain from the individual pieces of curd. Some hard cheeses are then heated to temperatures in the range of 35–55 °C (95–131 °F).

This forces more whey from the cut curd. It also changes the taste of the finished cheese, affecting both the bacterial culture and the milk chemistry. Cheeses that are heated to the higher temperatures are usually made with thermophilic starter bacteria that survive this step—either Lactobacilli or Streptococci.

Salt has roles in cheese besides adding a salty flavor. It preserves cheese from spoiling, draws moisture from the curd, and firms cheese’s texture in an interaction with its proteins. Some cheeses are salted from the outside with dry salt or brine washes. Most cheeses have the salt mixed directly into the curds.

Other techniques influence a cheese’s texture and flavor. Some examples are :

  • Stretching: (Mozzarella, Provolone) The curd is stretched and kneaded in hot water, developing a stringy, fibrous body.
  • Cheddaring: (Cheddar, other English cheeses) The cut curd is repeatedly piled up, pushing more moisture away. The curd is also mixed (or milled) for a long time, taking the sharp edges off the cut curd pieces and influencing the final product’s texture.
  • Washing: (Edam, Gouda, Colby) The curd is washed in warm water, lowering its acidity and making for a milder-tasting cheese.

After curing, natural cheese begins a ripening process during which it’s stored, usually uncovered, at a controlled temperature and humidity until the desired texture and character is obtained. It can be covered with wax or other protective coating before or after this ripening process. Ripened cheeses are further classified according to texture. Hard cheeses are cooked, pressed and aged for long periods (usually at least two years) until hard and dry, and are generally used for grating.

Among the more well known, of this genre are, Parmesan and pecorino. Semi firm cheeses such as cheddar, Edam and Jarlsberg are firm but not usually crumbly. They have been cooked and pressed but not aged as long as those in the firm-cheese category. Semisoft cheeses are pressed but can be either cooked or uncooked. Their texture is sliceable but soft. Among the more popular semisoft cheeses are Gouda, Jack and Tilsit. Soft-ripened (or surface-ripened) cheeses are neither cooked nor pressed.

They are, however, subjected to various bacteria either by spraying or dipping, which ripens the cheese from the outside in. Such cheeses develop a rind that is either powdery white as in Brie or golden orange, like Pont l’évêque. The consistency of soft-ripened cheese can range from semisoft to creamy and spreadable. 

Some cheeses are further categorized by process. Blue-veined cheeses, for example, are inoculated or sprayed with spores of the molds Penicillium roqueforti or penicillium glaucum. Some of these cheeses are punctured with holes to ensure that the mold will penetrate during the aging period. The results of these painstaking efforts are cheeses with veins or pockets of flavorful blue or green mold. Another special-process category is pasta filata (“spun paste”), Italy’s famous stretched-curd cheeses.

They’re made using a special technique whereby the curd is given a hot whey bath, then kneaded and stretched to the desired pliable consistency. Among the pasta filata cheeses are mozzarella, provolone and caciocavallo. Whey cheeses are another special category. Instead of beginning with milk, they’re made from the whey drained from the making of other cheeses.

The whey is reheated, usually with rennin until it coagulates. Probably the best known of this cheese type are Gjetost and Italian ricotta. There are a variety of reduced-fat and fat-free cheeses on the market today. They’re commonly made either partially or completely with nonfat milk, and supplemented with various additives for texture and flavor.

Unfortunately, the more the fat is reduced in cheese, the less flavor it has. Not only that, but the less fat there is, the worse cheese behaves when melted. The texture of such cheese turns rubbery when heated and, in fact, nonfat cheese never really seems to melt, but obstinately remains in its original form.

For these reasons, low- and nonfat cheeses are best used in cold preparations like sandwiches. Imitation cheese is just that—a fusion that generally includes tofu, calcium caseinate, which is a milk protein, rice starch, lecithin and various additives. It’s a non-dairy, non-fat, non-cholesterol and no flavor food that, for those who like cheese, is better not to purchase.

Storing cheese: Firm, semi firm and semisoft cheese should be wrapped airtight in a plastic bag and stored in a refrigerator’s cheese compartment or warmest location, for up to several weeks. Such cheeses can be frozen, but will likely undergo a textural change. Fresh and soft-ripened cheeses should be tightly wrapped and stored in the coldest part of the refrigerator, generally for no more than two weeks.

If mold appears on firm, semi firm or semisoft cheese simply cut away, plus a little extra, and discard. Mold on fresh or soft-ripened cheese, however, signals that it should be thrown out.
Firm and semi firm cheeses are easier to grate if they’re cold. All cheese tastes better if brought to room temperature before serving.

The nutrients

The nutritional value of cheese varies widely. Cottage cheese may consist of 4% fat and 11% protein; some whey cheeses 15% fat and 11% protein, and some triple-crème cheeses 36% fat and 7% protein. In general, cheese supplies a great deal of calcium, protein, phosphorus and fat. A 30-gram (1.1 oz) serving of Cheddar cheese contains about 7 grams (0.25 oz) of protein and 200 milligrams of calcium.

Nutritionally, cheese is essentially concentrated milk: it takes about 200 grams (7.1 oz) of milk to provide that much protein, and 150 grams (5.3 oz) to equal the calcium.

Currently, more than one-third of all milk produced each year in the U.S. is used to manufacture cheese. Recent increases in the overall demand for farm milk have in large part been due to the continued growth of the cheese industry. As consumer appetites for all types of cheese continue to expand, so will the industry.

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