History of Cheese, Part 2: The Evolution of Cheese in Europe

So far, we’ve learned that the earliest cheesemakers—Neolithic shepherds in the Fertile Crescent—migrated throughout Western Asia, into India and Africa, and into Central Europe, bringing domesticated sheep and goats and cheesemaking knowledge with them. 

The story of cheese’s evolution across Europe is one of cross-pollination, innovation, and consolidation as empires rose and fell, new forms of agriculture and technology developed, and Christianity ascended—a development that has had untold influence on cheesemaking for the past two thousand years. By the dawn of the Modern Era, cheesemaking in Europe was a bustling industry poised to spread even further as colonization of the New World began. Miss Part 1 of the series? Read it here. 

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Cheese Takes Hold in Europe

By the late Bronze Age, cheesemakers throughout the Levant and Anatolia were trading their products and spread their techniques along Mediterranean sea routes, with the first recorded maritime trade of cheese happening around 1200 BCE. Over the next few hundred years, the Greek and then Roman empires would rise. Their cheeses were similar to what earlier cheesemaking civilizations had produced, with the addition of animal rennet allowing for harder cheeses with a longer shelf life. Brined, feta-style cheeses were also produced, and fresh, ricotta style cheeses—typically made with leftover whey—were produced and consumed by the shepherds themselves. The Celts in Central Europe had also developed a significant dairy culture and became known for their cheese during this time. They imported cheeses into Rome through modern-day Marseilles and eventually settled into Switzerland, though less is known about the earliest cheeses they produced.

As Rome expanded its empire, starting around the sixth century BCE, agriculture was consolidated and standardized. Growing populations and the need for grain to support troops during the Punic Wars with Carthage depleted and eroded soils used for growing grain. This created a shift towards a heavier reliance on dairy products, since livestock like goats and sheep can thrive on less fertile pastureland. Many small family farmers were drafted in the wars and returned to find their farms destroyed by enemy troops, and the Romans brought back thousands of enslaved Carthaginians from the wars. The result? Smallholder farmers declined, and land was consolidated into massive manors called latifundia owned by the empire’s elites, with free farmers and enslaved Carthaginian captives working the land to produce cheese to feed the manors and sell into urban markets.

By this time, Rome stretched west through modern-day France and Britain and east to what’s now Turkey, and the latifundia model spread with the Romans as they built large villas in the lands they’d colonized. The villas included large farms to supply thousands of Roman troops stationed at each one, typically with large flocks of sheep to supply both wool for cloth and milk for cheesemaking. Both free workers from the Roman colonies and workers enslaved by the empire farmed there through a tenant-like system—an antecedent to the feudal manors that would innovate cheesemaking through the Middle Ages. Soon, one of the biggest developments in cheese history would spread through the Roman Empire: Christianity. 

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Monks, Monasteries, and Dairy Maids

When Germanic peoples from northern Europe conquered the waning Roman empire—which had largely Romanized the Celts at its northern borders—at the end of the fifth century CE, their lords took over the villas, and peasant farmers worked small plots of land in exchange for labor on the demesne, or large farm owned by the manor. Towards the end of the sixth and the beginning of the seventh century, Pope Gregory I began promoting Benedict’s Rule—as in Benedictine monks—which promoted education, hard work and public service as part of monastic life, and encouraged aristocrats to give large landholdings and manors to the church. Thus hundreds of monasteries were established, and they became the center of European life in the Middle Ages. 

During this period in what’s now France, farm wives and dairy maids working sections of monastery land would develop several styles of soft-ripened cheeses we still know today. These wheels were small, since these farms typically only had one or two cows giving around a gallon of milk per day. Coupled with the cooler, wetter climate of the region, it was possible to produce these styles—bloomy rinds like Camembert, lactic bloomies like Valençay, and smear-ripened (also known as washed rind) cheeses. These wheels could be soft and delicate because they didn’t have to travel, since they were consumed locally in the monastery. It’s theorized that the monasteries, paid in cheese as part of tenant farmers’ rent, further developed peasant cheeses that evolved by trial and error over time, and vice versa. 

Cultural shift that would shape cheesemaking for centuries to come came to Europe from the south as well as the north: the Saracens or Umayyads, Muslim Arabs from North Africa, invaded southern France during the eighth century, bringing goats and cheesemaking equipment with them. By the 13th century, the Umayyads had been driven out of what’s now France, but their dairying practices remained. It’s thought that their influence in the Loire Valley made the region the center of goat cheese production in France that it still is today.

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Cheese Gets Big

By the end of the Middle Ages, cow dairying had supplanted sheep in Britain as disease, war, and bad weather took a toll on the country’s wool industry, and soon, market-driven yeoman farmers making cheeses like Cheshire had developed innovations to extend the shelf life and quality of their product on the long journey to London—such as huge cheese presses weighing thousands of pounds and rubbing the exterior of a cheese with butter to slow evaporation. Cheesemakers in the Swiss and French Alps had become known for big, brawny cheeses like Beaufort, Comte, Gruyère, and Emmental through innovations to drive moisture out of cheese, such as special curd knives and harps, cooking curd over high temperatures, cheese presses, and wide, wheel-shaped forms rather than tall cylinders. 

In France, the famed Caves at Cambalou had been used to age wheels of Roquefort since at least the 11th century CE, and the cheese was awarded the first-ever PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) in 1411. Cheesemakers in Northern Italy’s lowlands combined a plentiful salt supply with techniques borrowed from Alpine monks to make massive cylinders of long-lived grana-style cheeses like Parmigiano-Reggiano and Grana Padano, which were exported as far away as Britain. 

European cheeses had strong regional identities, were exported throughout the continent, and provisioned ships trading throughout the Old World and looking for the New. But it was Holland—once swampy marshland that became a dairy stronghold between 1300 and 1500—that took cheese production, marketing, and export to a level that hadn’t been seen before. 

The larger, highly specialized Dutch dairy farms developed new cheesemaking equipment to produce a few specific varieties, and they created some of the earliest cheese marketing in the form of uniquely shaped cheeses with vividly colored rinds. Edam was produced in small spheres rather than drums or wheels, which made it easier to pack and less likely to be damaged during shipping. Its rind was rubbed with a protective red coloring that also served to keep insects away. Gouda had a distinct sweet flavor thanks to its cooked-curd production technique, and its wide, rounded wheels coated in vinegar dyed yellow from saffron threads were durable and distinctive. 

The Dutch even created a market for cheese made from the skim milk that was a byproduct of butter-making—typically a low-quality product—into spice cheese, shot through with flavorings like caraway seeds and cloves and painted with a smooth, bright-red rind to add visual appeal and protect the quality of the cheese inside. As cheese production in Holland grew, huge regional cheese markets sprung up in cities like Alkmaar, Amsterdam, and Gouda, exporting millions of pounds of cheese destined for Europe and the New World by the late 16th century. 

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Stay tuned for our History of Cheese, Part 3: Cheese Packaging Through the Ages!


Sources: 

Cheese and Culture: A History of Cheese and Its Place in Western Civilization, Paul S. Kindstedt

Mastering Cheese: Lessons for Connoisseurship from a Maître Fromager, Max McCalman and David Gibbons

The Oxford Companion to Cheese, ed. Catherine Donnelly

Alexandra Jones is a writer, cheesemonger, and food educator who has been working with farmers and artisans in Pennsylvania for the past eight years. She has written for publications like Food & Wine, USA Today, The Counter, Civil Eats, Thrillist, and the Philadelphia Inquirer and is one-third of the team behind Collective Creamery, a women-powered artisan cheese subscription based in southeast Pennsylvania. Alexandra leads cheese tastings and teaches cheesemaking classes in and around Philadelphia, and we are honored to have her on our team.

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