Cheesemaking Is Older Than We Think

Painted Cattle in Libya. Image by Roberto Ceccacci, © The Archaeological Mission in the Sahara, Sapienza University of Rome

by Alifair Skebe

Do we really need cheese in our diet? Recent studies prove that dairy products such as milk, cheese, and butterfat have been not only important but integral to the North African, Near East, and European diets for seven millenia.

New evidence released in Nature: The International Weekly Journal of Science last month reveals that dairying practice is much older than previously imagined. According to a study written by Julie Dunne and organic chemists from the University of Bristol and the work of scientists from various institutions including the Universities of Milan, Pennsylvania, Rome, and Witwatersrand of Johannesburg, South Africa, “unequivocal evidence for extensive processing of dairy products in pottery vessels in Libyan Sahara during the Middle Pastoral period (approximately 5200-3800 B.C.) [confirm] that milk played an important part in the diet of these prehistoric pastoral people.” The study linked the inception of dairying to the late Holocene period, much earlier than accepted Neolithic period.

By studying the organic, fatty residues on the shards of pottery preserved in the now-arid terrain of the once-humid Saharan climate of Libya, researchers found conclusive evidence to support Northern Africa as the seat of the earliest pastoral communities raising sheep, cattle, and goats. Previous historic evidences of dairying have been limited to rock paintings and engravings which are unable to be accurately dated. A previous article in the Geographical Review (1971) by Frederick Simoons introduced chemical analysis from a vessel taken from the tomb of Hor-asha, the second king to the first Dynasty (3200-2900 B.C.), that identified milkfat residue. The hieroglyphic inscriptions on the vessel indicated “cheese.” This was the then conclusive evidence of dairying in North Africa, far superior to the loose evidences of ancient painted scenes of animal husbandry, milking, pottery, and butter making to more recent historic as well as current tribal dairy practices. Simoons suggests, albeit inconclusively, that dairying originated earlier than the vessel dated, between 5500 and 2000 BC amongst peoples who lived in west and central Sahara and who migrated to southern Egypt and the Sudan and finally to subSaharan Africa, maintaining their cultural traditions.

Consistent with Dunne’s findings, an article published last year in Current Anthropology looks at the island of Cyprus off the coast of Syria to find evidence of dairying dating to the Holocene period. Jean-Denis Vigne and his team found animals introduced to the island from the mainland Near East, specifically that of sheep for dairying and later cattle and goats. Researchers from both studies – the Near East and North Africa – found a concurrence of butchered bones with dairying, and fauna suggestive of high technical skill in animal farming. Cattle were used to carry heavy loads, and meat was eaten from young adult males. According to Vigne, the ancient peoples’ skills included “separating herding of young and adults, particular attention to lambs, and processing of milk and its derivatives.”  Dunne notes that the coinciding cut animal bones and dairy fats in the pottery “suggests full pastoral economy as the cattle were extensively exploited for their secondary products.” Also a “wide range of alkanoid acid values…is unprecedented and points to differing pastoral modes of subsistence” such as seasonal patterns of pasturing and vertical transhumance, or the running of the herd from the lowland to mountain pastures in late Spring to early Fall.

These studies reveal the inception of dairying practices in prehistoric locales, establishing a record of activity heretofore unimagined in anthropological accounts. These “primitive” humans in a relatively short period of time developed complex practices of animal husbandry which were not primitive at all, but show high intelligence and adaptability to shifting environment. Their practices persist in today’s tradition. Moreover, they debunk the misperception that humans were unable to digest dairy in prehistoric times. In point of fact, they may have either had the allele, a form of the gene, for lactase persistence or developed dairying practices such as cheesemaking to allow for dairy consumption, as lactose ages out of most cheeses after 60-90 days. In all, the early pastoral people cultivated dairying and animal farming with precision and intension.


Bogaard, Amy. “’Garden Agriculture’ and the Nature of Early Farming in Europe and the Near East.” World Archaeology. 37.2 (Jun 2005): 177-196. online.

Dunne, Julie et al. “First Dairying in Green Saharan Africa in the Fifth Millennium BC.”  Nature: International Weekly Journal of Science. 486 (21 June 2012): 390-394. online. 

Simoons, Frederick J. “The Antiquity of Dairying in Asia and Africa.” Geographical Review. 61.3 (July 1971): 431-439. online.

Vigne, Jean-Denis et al. “The Early Process of Mammal Domestication in the Near East: New Evidence from the Pre-Neolithic and the Pre-Pottery Neolithic in Cypress.” Current Anthropology. 52.s4 (Oct 2011): s255-s271. online.

Cheese…and a Revolution!

The Storming of the Bastille, by Jean-Pierre Laurent Houël (1735-1813)

by Eric Paul

Saturday, July 14th 2012 marked the 223rd anniversary of the storming of the Bastille, King Louis XVI’s infamous prison, whose destruction symbolized the beginning of the French Revolution. Although The Cheese Traveler was busy mongering our great local cheese selection at the Delmar Saturday Market, we couldn’t help thinking about this most important of French national holidays. All of our local, New York cheeses are descended from European cheeses, and since October of last year, we have exclusively sold local cheeses at Capital District farmers’ markets. But for our new shop at 540 Delaware, we will expand our line to include small, artisanal cheeses from France and beyond. We have been thinking a lot about the French cheeses we will sell when we open our shop. Eric has been compiling his list of cheeses for his opening orders, while we have been waiting – not so patiently, grrrr! – for materials to arrive so we can continue our renovations.

As is commonly known, cheese is an integral part of French culture. The history of cheese production goes back to Ossau Iraty, which was being made in the Basque country dating back to pre-history. By the time the Romans came to France, cheesemaking had been in development for centuries – some of these ancient practices still continue today – Salers/Cantal, Beaufort, Fourme d’Ambert, Lagoiule, and Roquefort. During the Medieval times, many of the cheeses we know today were being made by monks in the monasteries – Brie de Meux, Epoisse, Comté (along with other less well known cheeses like Marroilles, Blue de Gex, and more).i Patrick Rance, who wrote the most authoritative book on French cheeses, drew his effort to catalog them to a close at over 750 French cheeses, acknowledging that there were more that were undocumented.ii The passage of time has brought additions and subtractions to Mr. Rance’s list.

In remembering Bastille Day and the French Revolution, cheese may have had a part in the political and economic conditions of rapid industrialization and high taxes that led to the revolution. Industrialization brought vast wealth to the monarchy and noble, owning class. Additionally, France was participating in and funding the American Revolution, which caused the monarchy to levy high taxes to pay for the war effort and France’s growing debt. This contributed to the strife leading up to the French Revolution.iii At the time, cheeses were being made in both the monasteries and by landowners in the countryside. However, landowners, who were essentially tenant farmers, were required to pay taxes, while the monasteries were not. Tax could be paid by means of cheese: not only the infamous Reblochon de Savoie, a cheese invented by cheesemakers who would perform a second milking after the tax collector had left to produce cheese for themselves, thus, avoid paying taxes, but also Tete de Moine, which prior to its identity as a classic cheese from Switzerland was made in the Jura region of France by monks at the Bellelay Abbey. Their cheese was originally called Bellelay. The monks of Bellelay Abbey taught the landowners how to make the cheeses but also required them to tithe the church in the form of wheels of cheese.iv It was with controversy that late in the ancien régime a tithe was extended beyond grain crops and vineyards to include the produce of orchards and farm animals. The peasantry was willing to accept the previous tithing but “the triple tithe” on sheep — lambs, wool, and cheese was what broke their back..v Such taxes contributed to class tension between the landowners and the ecclesiastical classes. For testimony of the importance of cheese to the French, one merely has to look to the history of the Revolution to find that the cheeses that were made in the monasteries were spared while the monasteries were

For French cheeses, Eric is looking to the honed skills of France’s best affineurs or cheese ripeners/maturers. These are masters of their crafts who have completed training and worked for decades often for their small family businesses to develop their skills at selecting cheeses from fermier – or farmhouse – and artisanal – made by hand in small batches in small quantities (it is not artisan merely because producers call it so!) – producers and bringing them to their special aging facilities so that they can mature them to perfection. By working with affineurs in France we will bring small production, perfectly ripened cheeses to Albany. These are both the selection and quality that you only find at select cheese shops and should you travel to France.

Rodolphe le Meunier Tomme de Vendee

We are excited to feature those beautiful, hand selected, carefully aged cheeses by Rodolphe Le Meunier, the winner of the Meilleur Ouvrier de France and International Caseus Award (World Champion Cheese Affineur in 2007). Eric has worked with Rodolphe at the last two Cheesemonger Invitationals. He has carefully cultivated this relationship and is excited to have Rodolphe’s cheese and hand-churned butter in Albany.

Over the last few years, Rodolphe has worked with his goat’s milk cheese producers to make pasteurized versions of classic French, small format, goat’s milk cheeses, typical of the Poitou and Loire Valley. These cheeses come in various formats – discs (Galet de Cher), donuts (Courone de Touraine), crottins, pyramids (Pyramides de Touraine), and logs (Ste Maure de Touraine AOP). These are among the finest goat cheeses available anywhere – gorgeous texture with clean but complex flavors. We can’t wait to share them with you. These are how the Loire valley goat’s milk cheeses should be!

Rodolphe also selects soft-ripened, bloomy rind cheeses from producers in small quantities. These creamy beauties are typically sold by the pallet indiscriminately (Brillat Savarin), but Rodolphe carefully scrutinizes each wheel and selects smaller quantities so that they are higher quality and in better condition to make the voyage to the U.S. Thus, these are the most perfect bloomy rind cheeses from France that you can find not only in Albany but on par with the best of these French cheeses anywhere in the U.S.

Le Meunier’s table at the Cheesemonger Invitational 2012. Look at that gorgeous Puit d’Astier!

While the cheeses mentioned above are French classics, we are also excited about the less well known cheeses that we shall get from Rodolphe. We plan on carrying too many to list here but we’ll describe a few of them. There are beautiful cheeses from Auvergnes, which were admired in the writings of Olivier de Serres in the 1600: “the cheeses from Auvergne are renowned all over France, from coast to coast.”vii Accordingly we shall sell a rare, fermier (or farmhouse) Saint Nectaire with a well formed natural rind (not the rubbery, factory produced ones with the salmon colored washed rind); Fourme au Moelleux, a blue cheese, washed in a sweet white wine; Puit d’Astier, a giant, 16 pound, sheep’s milk cheese that is shaped like a donut. There are other gorgeous cheeses from Vendée – La Jeune Autise, a goat’s milk, washed-rind morbier style cheese; Tome de Fontenay, another aged goat’s milk tome that is coated in herbs both of which Eric enjoyed at their oozing best after they were heated under a raclette machine last month– oh my God!

In addition to Rodolphe Le Meunier, Eric will work with other affineurs – Joseph Paccard, Jean D’Alos, and maître fromager (master of cheese) and affineur Pascal Bellevaire. Joseph Paccard specializes in selecting and maturing delicious traditionally made, raw milk, alpine cheeses from Savoie and Jura – we’ll open the store with Tomme Fermier La Manigodine, made in the tradition of Reblochon de Savioe; Persille de Tignes, a savory raw goat’s milk cheese with a stunning gray, natural rind; and a gorgeous, Tomme de Savoie Fermier. As we grow we will bring in more cheeses from Joseph Paccard. Similarly with D’Alos and Bellevaire the selections will be limited at first. We shall most likely open the store with two beauties from Bellevaire, which Eric became familiar with at Formaggio Kitchen – Vendéen Bichone, a deliciously full flavored, semi-soft cow’s milk cheese from the Vendée region of Brittany; and Trois Lait, a creamy, washed-rind, semi-soft, mixed milk cheese made from goat, sheep, and cow’s milk from the Couserans valley in the Pyrénées. We can’t wait to grow so that we can bring in the exotic goat’s milk blue from the Vendée region of Brittany – Bleu du Bocage.

The Cheese Traveler is committed to this level of production and quality of cheese in order to bring those cheeses that are made in the countryside rather than the factory to Albany. These cheeses are small production and are similar to what you would find should you travel to France. To taste them is to travel to the French countryside; to experience and come to learn the qualities of the locale, the traditions of the cheesemakers and affineurs, and the heritage of the cheeses. It is with similar scrutiny that Eric will select cheeses from other countries to join the fine American farmhouse and artisan cheeses produced regionally and across the U.S. Thus, we have revealed the other meaning of the name – The Cheese Traveler. For while we have loved our trips to France, and would encourage everyone to travel to France and other places, we also know that we can have a little bit of France in the smallest production cheeses and artisan foods. Such traditional artisan foods get closest to the land (the terroir as in good wine production) and cultural traditions of their home countries. And by sharing these taste experiences with our companions here at home in the U.S., we are able to share in their fascinating flavors and rich stories.

Rue Montorgueil, Paris, Festival of 30 June 1878, Claude Monet

i Rance, The French Cheese Book, xvi-xvii.

ii Rance, xix.

iii The Columbia Encyclopedia, 3rd ed. 1963, p. 771.

v Jones, P.M. The Peasantry and the French Revolution. London:  Cambridge University Press,1988, p. 95.

vi Rance, xvii.

vii Rance, xvii.