The Birth of Cheese: How People Became Addicted To Funk


Image courtesy of Rob Wiltshire at

Image courtesy of Rob Wiltshire at

Cheese is the only rotten and smelly mold that became acceptable to eat. I wanted to learn how this happened so I began to explore its history.  I discovered some very interesting facts regarding the development of famous cheeses. Do you know which one is classified as plastic?

I began with Claire Eamer’s THE WORLD IN YOUR LUNCH BOX, and learned, “the wacky history and weird science of everyday foods.” She thinks that cheese was discovered by accident. Her theory is that thousands of years ago, some hungry person near the Mediterranean Sea noticed how spoiled milk had separated into watery liquid and crumbly solids and decided to taste it. “The crumbly bits were curds, which are the basic material of cheese. And why were the curds discovered in a bag made from a calf’s stomach? That’s because the calves’ stomachs contain rennet, a substance that helps animals digest their mother’s milk. When it’s mixed with curds, the rennet makes them softer and tastier.”

Whey is apparently another accidental discovery. Watch out vegans! “The watery liquid, called whey, is drained off…Whey is often turned into protein powder and  added to manufactured foods, such as crackers and ice cream, so you might be eating it too, without even knowing it.” – Claire Eamer

Paul Kindstedt, author of CHEESE AND CULTURE, claims cheese making began around 6500 BC when ceramics and pottery were created for storage.  “In the warm climate of southwest Asia, stored milk would have fermented quickly and coagulated spontaneously due to the production of lactic acid by bacteria that are always naturally present in milk environments. The fragility of the coagulated milk and its tendency to separate into solid curds and liquid whey when stirred would have become quickly evident….The availability of surplus milk, pottery , and perhaps basket weaving, therefore, opened the door to acid-coagulated cheese making on a regular basis.”

According to  Claire Eamer, “Stinky Cheese Rules!” She explains how, around 800 AD, French Emperor Charlemagne became addicted to funk. He was trying to be polite by eating around the molded part of the cheese on his plate. “Don’t do that, my lord! The bishop said. You’re throwing away the best part. So Charlemagne screwed up his courage and nibbled a bit of moldy cheese. It was wonderful—so good, in fact, that he ordered the bishop to deliver two cartloads of stinky, moldy cheese to the imperial court every year.”

Eamer also includes some fun facts about cheese in her book.  The 200 year old Saanen Swiss cheese is the oldest cheese “worth eating.” The Biggest cheese was “created for Queen Victoria’s wedding in 1840. The monster cheddar measured 2.7 meters (9 feet) across and weighed 567 kilograms (1250 pounds), roughly the weight of a cow. That record stood until 1964, when American cheese makers in Wisconsin made a Cheddar that weighed about as much as 27 cows.”

Paul Kindstedt explores the 9000 year history of cheese from its ricotta like Neolithic beginnings to the European creations of Cheddar, Swiss, Parmesan, and Mozzarella. It also describes the changes that took place in twentieth century United States, when the manufacturing focus shifted from quality and flavor to the reduction of operational costs. ”Industrial Cheddar cheese-makers came under considerable economic pressure during the second half of the twentieth century to lower the cost of production by increasing cheese moisture contents and decreasing the length of aging, conditions that favored less intense and less complex cheese flavor.”


Roquefort: The blue mold, Penicillium roqueforti, developed in the caves of Roquefort. According to  Kindstedt, “A simple cheese-making technology that involved slow rennet coagulation of sheep’s milk, no cooking, and heavy salting of the cheese surface with sea-salt evolved in this region. The resulting cheeses, high in acidity and salt content, provided a chemical environment that was favorable to growth of Penicillium roqueforti…” Kindstedt is uncertain about its beginnings; however the French offer an answer.

“According to French legend, a young shepherd was eating his lunch at the mouth of a cave one day when he spied a gorgeous shepherdess in the distance. He left his bread and cheese to pursue the girl, only to find the forgotten cheese several months later. By that time, the cave’s mold had transformed the cheese into something far tastier.” – mental_floss!

Cheddar: The most widely produced cheese on the planet was named after a village in England. Cheddar cheese evolved from its initial post-salt processing to the Cheshire way. ”The combination of scalding plus pre-salting was a landmark development in English pressed-cheese making. It allowed large cheeses to be produced that were low enough in moisture and high enough in salt  throughout to preempt internal rotting, yet moist enough and low enough in salt to support the development of excellent flavor and texture during aging. Cheddar cheese makers in Somerset embraced the combined technology by the early nineteenth century, as did the cheese makers in America around the same time.” – Paul Kindstedt

Monterey Jack: This spicy blend was once my favorite melted cheese. “Franciscan friars around Monterey, CA, crafted a mild white cheese throughout the 19th century, but the semi-hard treat didn’t begin spreading until Scottish immigrant David Jack started marketing his own version of the cheese.” Jack, a real estate tycoon, acquired dairy farms and subsequently the friar’s cheese recipe. – mental_floss!

Colby:  This is another American Cheese born in Wisconsin in 1885. “Joseph F. Steinwand started varying his production process for cheddar by washing the curds with cold water. The washing process cut down on the acidity of the cheese and gave it a milder flavor than regular cheddar. Steinwand named his creation after the nearby town of Colby, WI.”- mental_floss!

Mozzarella: This Italian Cheese was named after the way it was made. “Legend has it that mozzarella was first made when cheese curds accidentally fell into a pail of hot water in a cheese factory near Naples…”  What’s certain is that mozzarella was first made by cutting the curds, from the rich milk of water buffalos, and then shaping them into balls. Mozzarella is derived from the verb mozzare which means to cut.

American:  You guessed it folks! The US wins once again for the creation of junk marketed as “food.” It’s not even American! Walter Gerber invented it in Switzerland in 1911 and James L. Kraft patented and marketed it in the US. “Processed cheese product or “cheese food” is made from cheese as well as unfermented dairy products, emulsifiers (stabilizers – usually sodium phosphate, tartrate or citrate), salt, food coloring and whey (milk plasma). Most varieties cannot legally be labeled “cheese” because of the high amount of additives. Real cheese has a lower moisture content and contains more milk fat.”-Shilo Urban  “American cheese” is a mild, meltable, and stable concoction of natural cheese bits mixed with emulsifying agents to make, in the language of the law, “a homogeneous plastic mass.” –  mental_floss!

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THE WORLD IN YOUR LUNCH BOX:  The wacky history and weird science of everyday foods, Claire Eamer


How 8 Famous Cheeses Got Their Names, mental_floss





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