I guess we all have our favorite foods. As far as I'm concerned, I like all kinds of poultry, chicken, duck, turkey or goose. I'm also fond of a good steak occasionally, but I'm not really keen on seafood. Having said all that, I have to admit I think my all-time favorite is cheese.

It has to be good cheese, mind you. I'm not too keen on soft cheeses like Brie or Camembert, but prefer the stronger flavored, harder cheeses. I like the occasional wedge of blue cheese such as the French Bleu D'Auvergne or the British Stilton, both of which are very hard to get in the US because their names are protected by law and they have to be imported. I love a good Cheddar, too  not the orange, plastic stuff that masquerades as Cheddar but the pale, smooth, strong cheese that owes its origins to the Cheddar Gorge in Southwest England, a place where it's been made for at least 800 years.

Despite being made for that length of time, Cheddar is not even close to being the world's oldest cheese. In fact there is evidence that this food may have been around for nearly 10 times as long and it's probable that cheese was first made by accident. Most varieties are made by bacteria turning milk sugars into lactic acid, with the curdling process then completed by adding rennet, a natural enzyme found in the stomachs of grazing animals. This process separates the curds from the whey and the curds are then strained to make the cheese.

It's this process that gives us a clue as to when the way to make cheese was discovered. Sheep were domesticated around 10,000 years ago and people soon learned how to milk them in order to get a refreshing, sustaining drink. Naturally the shepherds needed somewhere to store the milk and it's thought they may have kept it in the stomach of a slaughtered animal. This allowed the natural rennet to start the process of curdling. We're not sure where this first occurred, although it probably happened in several places at around the same time, nor are we sure what animal was the first to be milked. Most probably it was a sheep or goat, but equally it could have been a cow, buffalo or any other grazing animal.

What is known is that, by using a scientific technique known as lipid analysis, strainers that date back 7,500 years that were found by archaeologists in Kujawy, Poland, have been tested and found to have absorbed milk fat molecules. The scientists doing the analysis contend this indicates people were using them to separate curds from whey and thus were making a type of cheese at least that long ago.

In fact, it is thought they could have been making many different types of cheese, depending on the animal, its diet and the process used. The earliest cheeses were probably quite soft and crumbly, possibly a little like today's cottage cheese or perhaps Greek feta, which is another variety I'm rather fond of. These cheeses would have tasted quite sour and, after it was discovered that they lasted longer by adding salt to the curds, they would have been salty, too.

Wherever the art of cheesemaking started, it soon spread. There are 4,000-year-old paintings on the walls of Egyptian tombs depicting the process and some of this ancient cheese has actually been found.

Back in 2010 scientists excavated the tomb of a man named Ptahmes, who was the mayor of the Egyptian city of Memphis 1,300 years before the birth of Jesus. Among the funeral offerings they discovered a group of broken jars, one of which contained a white substance. They suspected it might have once been some kind of food and an article published in Analytical Chemistry says that tests have since proved it was cheese. They can even tell us it was a soft, spreadable cheese that would have tasted quite sour and would have gone bad very quickly. Another example of ancient preserved cheese has also been found in the Taklamakan Desert in Xinjiang, China, and this was dated to around the same time as the Egyptian sample, showing how far the cheesemaking art had spread.

The ancient Greeks were adept at cheese making and, when he wrote the epic story, "The Odyssey," some 800 years before the birth of Christ, Homer describes the Cyclops as having racks full of cheeses that he'd made from sheep and goats' milk.

A little later, when the Romans came along, cheese was already a common food and the famous Roman philosopher and author, Pliny, wrote a whole chapter in his "Natural History" about the different varieties of cheese the Romans ate. These included varieties from what is now France, the Alps and modern-day Turkey. He even described certain cheeses that were best if smoked before consuming.

Cheese making spread rapidly and the number of varieties increased as local communities used their own methods. Cheddar was probably around in the 13th century, while Parmesan made an appearance in 1597 and Gouda a century later. Camembert was a relative late comer, not showing up until 1791. Britain apparently now has around 700 varieties of local cheese, Italy has 400 and there is an old French proverb that says they have a different cheese for every day of the year.

There are so many different varieties because, before the beginning of the 19th century, cheese production remained something of a cottage industry, but then the first factory to produce it commercially opened in Switzerland in 1815. Nearly half a century later, Jesse Williams, a dairy farmer from Rome, New York, introduced a production line system to turn the milk from neighboring farms into cheese. This was the start of the American cheese industry and it now accounts for 29 percent of the total world production from cows' milk.

That's a lot of cheese but I, for one, am not complaining. We currently have six different varieties in our fridge and, since writing this has made me feel hungry, I'm going to leave you now in order to go get some cheese and crackers.

Derek Coleman is a part-time writer who is a native of England and who now lives in Hurricane, W.Va. He can be reached at tallderek@hotmail.com.


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