Updated: Jan 31
Anna Sulan Masing explores the question — what is cheese? This leads her down a dairy-filled, existential rabbit hole. Illustrations by Ben Jones
Once you start looking into ‘what is cheese?’, this seemingly straightforward question becomes overwhelming. The depth of cheese history — as a food source and a preserving technique — means that the story of cheese gets caught up in the story of humanity. Cheese is politics, religion, nation-building, love, war, and John Legend’s ‘All Of Me Loves All Of You’ playing at your cousin’s wedding for the fourth time, whilst the best man tries to slow dance with you.
But before we get to wedding DJs and cheese as an adjective, cheese was a consequence of the human race, and indeed of the earth, settling down. As we roamed the land, hunting and gathering, and as we navigated the fluctuating climate, there wasn’t time to learn to cultivate soil, to grow crops, to domesticate animals, to feed them grain, to produce milk in easy access, and then sour the milk for cheese. It wasn’t until the global climate — that early man existed in — started to settle and develop clear seasons that humans were able to organise themselves and their surroundings, which resulted in farming, both crop agriculture and the herding of animals, such as cows.
Cheese starts with milk. Paul S Kindstedt looks at the role of animal milk in humans’ eating repertoire, in his book Cheese and Culture, to understand how and when cheese first made an appearance. It is hard to track when milk became part of the human diet, but it is likely that milk was used for feeding infants, as human adults like most adult mammals were lactose intolerant. Kindstedt gives a detailed breakdown of the side effects of this intolerance (it isn’t pretty!) before explaining that humans became genetically lactose tolerant from 5500 BC; milk harvesting in earnest began in Anatolia around 7000 to 6500 BC.
Felipe Fernández-Armesto, in Food, A History, outlines his distaste for diary, and that a lot of the world is still dairy intolerant, but “it must be acknowledged, however, that some of the greatest triumphs of world gastronomy have been achieved in the course of the struggle to make milk digestible. They are called cheese.”
The first great innovation (towards this step) was pottery. This allowed milk — and other foods — to be stored. The natural warming of the milk as it was housed in pots led to fermentation and curd. “Neolithic pastoralists discovered that adults were able to consume the curds in modest amounts without developing symptoms that they experienced when they drank milk,” Kindstedt writes. It was these early cheeses that allowed humans to adapt to lactose. Cheese was the gateway dairy.
The hole in a Swiss cheese is what makes it a Swiss Cheese: it would lack meaning and identity without dotting of empty space. And equally, the hole does not exist without being encased by cheese. A cheese is more than the sum of its parts.
To achieve curdling, milk is heated to reach a level of acidity, and a bacteria or starter culture is added, and “this converts the lactose to lactic acid and contributes to the flavour, aroma and texture of the cheese,” explains Juliet Harbutt in World Cheese Book. Rennet is most often added, or another acid such as vinegar or citrus juice, to encourage curdling. The curd is protein and fat in the milk bonding together, the whey is what is leftover and gets separated out, with the curd becoming cheese.
With the technology of vessels that allowed for curdling to happen, it also meant that cheese — once made — could travel and migrate with people. So could the knowledge of cheesemaking with them. The Greeks and Romans made cheese, the Indian subcontinent has records in precious Hindu Vedic texts of cheesemaking; many ancient and antiquity cultures developed the curdling skill. It is noted that cheese did not take deep root in China and further East possibly because “[the] expansive, fertile, well-watered region was able to support vigorous population growth and a thriving Chinese food culture that was well established by the time that dairying spread to various part of southeast Asia,” Kindstedt explains. Cheese simply wasn’t needed.
Like the whey that surrounds the curds, the culture of a community and society is part of the cheesemaking. Unlike whey, the world around cheese is impossible to separate — food is a function of society in both its nutritional needs, and in traditional, ritual and cultural cohesion; and cheese plays its part. Inanna the Queen of Heaven, fertility, and erotic love within the Uruk religion (Early Bronze Age) was also known as a lover of cheese. Accessories were considered important precious items (not unlike today, as Catherine Kirk’s piece on Stilton accoutrements illustrates) with aristocrats in early 7th century BC in Italy being buried alongside cheese graters. From less lofty heights, the bubonic plague changed the labour landscape of Europe from feudal to yeoman farmers who were entrepreneurial and wanted in on the growing dairy market, employing dairymaids (who had previously been making cheese for manors) to make cheese from their cattle’s milk. This developed a specialised industry across Europe.
Cheese was also swept up in the food revolution of convenience and ease — Kate Colquhoun, in Taste: The Story of Britain Through its Cooking, marks the first cheese factories in 1860 in Derbyshire as part of that: “the late Victorian urban housewife no longer tested the quality and prices of specialist shops [...] but sent out for orders and had her food delivered.”
Transportation and storage of cheese has been a huge innovator, it allowed for a pursuit of economics! Julia Errens talks about Gouda’s industrial aims in this issue and you can see this elsewhere as cheese took hold in Europe as a key economy. Cheshire cheese had been developing a reputation around the same time that Gouda was becoming a powerhouse, but salt and moisture levels were proving tricky to manage so as not to spoil the cheese for the London markets. In the early 18th century, Cheshire cheesemakers developed a very heavy cheese press: meaning that they could produce larger cheeses, with less moisture, and half a century later, followed this with the discovery of mixing salt with curd before pressing, allowing for aging stability. The salting and pressing of cheese, into a desired shape, is now such an integral practice in cheesemaking — sometimes sprinkled with salt or sometimes soaked in brine, before being placed in a cold room to be aged.
What makes a cheese unique is the cultural terroir it exists in, with the people and society creating circumstance, desire, curdling technique and cultural traditions. And of course the bacteria — the allowing, and indeed encouraging, of bacteria to grow in the milk curd is what gives the cheese its flavours, aromas, texture, and colour. These are complex threads that are woven, “the possible combinations are innumerable — perhaps infinite. New cheeses are being invented all the time,” Fernádez-Armesto writes.
As cheese knowledge ages and matures, where are we now? What is cheese to us in the contemporary world? Cheesemaking is still the heart of identity, culture, family, and building of regional (national!) belonging, as so much of this issue demonstrates.
In the play Mother Courage and Her Children by Bertolt Brecht, the chaplin asks, “what happens to the hole when the cheese is gone?” It is a political statement. It is about the existence and meaning of war and peace; peace being the hole which cannot exist without a presence — or understanding — of war, the cheese. But it also references the idea of only seeing the value in a singularity, and not looking at the full picture of what is around that ‘thing’. The hole in a Swiss cheese is what makes it a Swiss Cheese: it would lack meaning and identity without dotting of empty space. And equally, the hole does not exist without being encased by cheese. A cheese is more than the sum of its parts.
Industrial cheeses encapsulate corporate branding and marketing with the likes of Babybel — origins Jura in France, claimed worldwide — and its red wax wheels that are in many memories from childhood school lunchboxes in the West. The start of 2021 has seen Twitter explore the possibilities of cheese in the 70s: Twitter account ‘70s Dinner Party’ posted ads from the Irish National Dairy Council stating “Cheese is manfood”, and Gavin Wren tweeted a page from the 1971 book The Complete Book of Magic and Witchcraft, containing the line: “You may fascinate a woman by giving her a piece of cheese.”(Tabitha Stanmore of University of Bristol has written about the links of cheese and magic.) In the last decade, cheese towers have become a ‘trend’, replacing a wedding cake. And so this dairy treat ingrains itself into new cultural traditions and seems to be entwined with love (again! Inanna, is that you?).
The last century has also seen a refocus on regionality and ‘farmhouse’ cheeses with the establishment of Protected Designation of Origin, which has echoes of the middle ages where agriculture — and food and drink — was tied to manors, monasteries, aristocracy, land ownership, and therefore created clear regional specialities. And, the breadth of what cheese is, and can be — as demonstrated by London’s vegan cheese shop La Fauxmagerie — moves beyond dairy and firmly into An Idea.
And so, this product that we call cheese — one simple word that covers so much — represents culture (pun intended) and history. It literally represents the world that surrounds it as it ages, and takes on the scent, the bacteria, the terroir of the air it is matured in; and fresh cheese, that is to be eaten almost immediately, lets us luxuriate in a moment of place and time. Cheese exists because of life — people and place — around it. Like a positive to a negative, or a reflection. One exists because of the other.
Cheese came about because of environment, and now cheese creates environments — business, livelihoods, dinner parties, and friendships. Cheese as a word is so ingrained in our world, it is now part of the English lexicon outside of food — 'cheesy music', being 'cheesed off', and we say 'cheese' to the camera to smile. Cheese is: the product of people, place and culture. So my question is not only what happens to the hole when the cheese disappears, but what comes first — the cheese or the hole? And, what will the cheese of the future be, and represent?
The ‘What is Cheese?’ playlist
curated by my most cultured friends