Like many origin stories throughout human history, the discovery of cheese and the beginning of cheesemaking remains one of the most famous legends. Much like the history of France itself, the history of cheese tells a remarkable story of human progress and ingenuity.
The Beginnings of Dairy
Long before France even became an independent nation, milk was being used to create cheese. While many historians agree that milk consumption dates back to sometime during the Neolithic Era, depending on the region of the world, it is usually considered to have begun in Europe around 7500 years ago. Around this time, dairy farming began increasing as Central Europeans underwent a genetic change, allowing their bodies to produce the enzyme lactase, which is responsible for breaking down the milk sugar lactose.
From Milk to Cheese
While dairy farming began to become prevalent in Central Europe during this early period, the actual making of cheese is believed to have begun in the Mesopotamia region around the same time. From this period, we are left with interesting fables about how cheese was first discovered, along with beautiful illustrations depicting the process of milk turning into cheese. However, we don’t begin to see the first written records of the exact steps that go into the cheesemaking process until the Roman Empire in the first century AD.
Even though many cheese recipes were lost after the fall of the Roman Empire, many of them, such as well-known ones like Maroilles and Munster, were preserved in monasteries, where cheesemaking remained a very delicate and unique art.
Cheese Finding its Way to France
From these monasteries, we are able to trace the origins of the French tradition and love of cheesemaking. As cheese gained more popularity throughout France, it continued to only be produced and consumed in local regions. With this production pattern, French cheese began to take on very specific regional characteristics, which are referred to today as a cheese’s terroir.
Within each region of France, ingenuity and creativity led to the blossoming of a robust and unique culture of cheesemaking science and art. Local cheese producers began experimenting and cultivating new types of cheese, as well as producing distinct variations of already established cheeses. As this process continued, France slowly became recognized around the world for producing the greatest variety of delicious and exceptional cheeses.
Modern Day Cheese
Today, the basics of the cheesemaking process actually remain mostly the same. Basically, cheese is created from milk through a process known as coagulation, which occurs when rennet, a set of complex enzymes, or an acidic substance, such as lemon juice or vinegar, is added to milk, causing it to coagulate. During this process, the milk protein casein forms into solid masses known as curds, which are then pressed together to form what we know as cheese. This process can be used for any animal’s milk, however, typically animals such as cows, goats, or sheep are used.
While the basic process to produce cheese has mostly remained the same since its origin, interesting variations, such as the type of animal, the type of bacteria and mold, the aging process, whether or not it is pasteurized, the butterfat content, the temperature and humidity, and the brine, represent specific elements that determine the type of cheese and its overall profile. Beyond this, herbs and spices are also used to enhance flavors and colors.
With the incredibly large degree of variation among each of these extremely important details, the number of different cheeses, specifically in France alone, has reached an extraordinary number of around 400, and because there actually exists variations within these categories themselves, some people consider there to be over 1000 different styles of cheese throughout France today.
Come to one of Left Bank’s restaurants and try the superiority of French cheese today!