Cheesemaking Simplified

Cheese Making Simplified

Cheese making is at least 7500 years old according to our current archeological records. Ancient pottery shards from cheese strainers containing cheese cultures were recently found in ancient sites in Poland and China.


Cheese Bogucki Pot sieve 400; fragments of ancient cheese strainer found in Poland, c. 5500BC

Ripening the Milk

Cheese production begins with milk from four animals: cow, sheep, goat, and water buffalo. The milk is poured into a vat for pasteurization or thermalization and heated before adding a starter culture. For raw milk cheeses, a starter culture is added directly to the vat without heating the milk. The milk is then given a few minutes to an hour to begin acid production before adding rennet to begin the coagulating process.

Cutting the Curd

After curds begin to form, they are cut with stretched steel blades that resemble a large comb. Cutting the curd must be done at just the right time so as not to loosen any fine curds necessary in curing the cheese.

Curding at Sprout Creek Farm, NY

Removing the Whey

Most cheeses require straining to remove whey. Some cheeses, such as Gruyere, are cooked in their whey before straining. The combination of heat and increasing acidity aids in syneresis, or the expulsion of moisture from the proteins in the curd. Cheddar curds are stirred and folded in a process known as cheddaring, which minimally heats the curds and allows them to knit together while simultaneously expelling whey.

Heating the curds in traditional copper kettles

Heating the curds in traditional copper kettles

Washing the Curd

After straining, some cheeses are washed with a water bath that removes any lingering whey and lactose. Adding water to the curd produces a very moist cheese like Muenster or Brick. Gouda is washed in hot water, which helps to dry the curd and create its characteristic texture.

This Medieval woodcut shows many uses for milk and cream. The center fromager is washing and straining the curd to make cheese; peasant churns cream into butter; large wheels of cheese age on shelves in the background.

This Medieval woodcut shows many uses for milk and cream. The center fromager is washing and straining the curd to make cheese; peasant churns cream into butter; large wheels of cheese age on shelves in the background.

Handling the Curd

Many cheeses that are brined or surface salted are collected into molds or pressed directly under the whey. Blue cheese, for example, is pressed into a hoop, salted, and left for a week before perforating its edges to allow air inside. Gouda and Swiss are pressed under whey, which encourages a smooth texture and prevents escape of air in the aging process. Cheeses such as Cheddar and Pasta Filata (mozzarella) are kept warm in a vat to ferment before salting. Pasta Filata cheeses are then worked and stretched in the warm water before curing.

Pouring the heated mixture of curds and whey into the colander and cheesecloth to form cheese

Pouring the heated mixture of curds and whey into the colander and cheesecloth to form cheese

Pressing the Curd

Curds are collected and then pressed into molds such as baskets, crocks, wooden hoops or metal cylinders. Soft cheeses require almost no pressure while some varieties require up to 25 pounds of pressure per square inch to form. Generally, the warmer the curd, the less pressure required, which may be another reason for cooking the curd of those 75 lb. wheels of Alpine cheese!

19th century cheesemaking tools

19th century cheesemaking tools

Salting the Curd

Adding salt is important for many reasons. It encourages improvement of curds, slows acid development, helps prevent spoilage, and controls ripening and flavor. Salting cheese follows three techniques: adding salt to the curd before pressing such as Cheddar, surface salting after pressing, and brine salting. Brine salting or washing the surface of the cheese (also known as smear-ripening) can occur once or continue periodically throughout the aging process.

Curing the Cheese

Cheeses range from un-aged, “fresh” cheeses to young cheeses that can be aged from two weeks up to two months to aged cheeses that can be aged from three months to many years. Nascent cheeses are placed in modern humidity-controlled “caves” that imitate the original cave environments of traditional cheeses. Cheeses such as Brie and Camembert are meant to be enjoyed under two months of age, as the aging process will spoil the surface cultures of the cheese. Other cheeses, like a fine wine, become more enjoyable with age as their texture and flavor intensify through the aging process.

The Cheese Traveler team selecting cheeses with a cheese maker at The Cellars at Jasper Hill

The Cheese Traveler team selecting cheeses with Vince Razionale at The Cellars at Jasper Hill

Are Ramps the New Arugula?


by Alifair Skebe

In 1983, ramps (or wild leeks) appeared on the American fancy foods scene with a recipe or two popping up in food magazines throughout the decade. By the late 90s, ramps reached celebrity status as the new, hip ingredient for gourmet chefs from New York City to Chicago for its versatility, unique flavor, and brief season. [1] In short, ramps are fairly rare and comparatively valuable. However, with over a decade of popularity and exposure, one might well ask: Are ramps overhyped? overharvested? overdone? Have ramps lost their cool?

A rather pedestrian item, the North American ramp (allium tricoccum) grows in deciduous damp woodlands, emerging in early spring, from March in Southern Appalachian states to May in the Northern seaboard and into Canada. Arguably, ramps were never very chic. Their name derives from their Eurasian cousin ramson (allium ursinum) from the Old English hramesan. Loved by brown bears, wild boars, and humans alike, the ramson or wild garlic has been a European and Anglo Saxon staple from antiquity to the present. The wild, foraged plant has a dense nutritional value and has traditionally been used in regional cuisines, notably from Germany to Italy to Russia, each dish unique to the country of origin. Classic British and Celtic cooking pairs the allium with other seasonal greens such as chickweed and nettles, or wild mushrooms, and includes them in soups, fritters, and puddings.

When the pioneers came to the new land, they identified the native American ramp with its cousin and named it accordingly. Some consider the name ramson to come from the “ram” associating the plant with the sign of Aries, the time when the plant grows and is harvested. Most likely the name derives from the Greek cognate krómmyon meaning onion. On the North American continent, the first peoples included ramps in their diet, seasoning their cuisine with its strong flavor. The Menominee called it “pikwute sikakushia” meaning skunk, and the Cherokee developed sustainable foraging practices, replanting the roots to keep the stock growing. To this day across Appalachia, the descendants of the settlers and natives hold festivals to celebrate the Spring ramp harvest.

The ramp has a variety of uses. Its leaves are rich in nitrogen, magnesium, calcium, and selenium, and it is known as a spring tonic. The greens are satisfying after a long winter without fresh foods, and the ramps effectively cleanse the kidney and liver. The 2005 documentary King of Stink highlights the influence and importance of the ramp in the Appalachian diet as well as some of the more interesting products that come from it, like ramp wine and pest control spray (click on the title to view the video).

Close to Albany, NY, home of The Cheese Traveler, some folks are extending the ramp celebration tradition to New York. 2013 marked the Third Annual Ramp Festival in Hudson, NY where fine chefs from Upstate and New York City showed off their ramp creations. For a gorgeous photo album of the event, check out Linda’s blog post at Wild Greens and Sardines. A variety of dishes graced the festival, held in an old, converted 19th century factory. The fanciness of the event and the quality of the foods seemed a leap beyond ramps’ working class roots. The most common ramp festival pairings are, and have been for over a century, fried ramps, bacon, cornbread, and beans, and depending on the region, barbecued chicken or fried trout.

More important than the food itself is the feeling behind what ramps represent. Ramp hunting is a good day or two out with friends and family just having a good time. Processing the ramps is chatting and enjoying one another’s company. Cooking is a celebration of nature’s bounty. Whether or not ramps will stay in fashion in the restaurant world, their presence in folk cuisine and specialty foods remains strong. The resurgence in popularity of ramps for a broader audience brings a classic food item back into the diet.

Ramps can be found in season (April-May in NY) at The Cheese Traveler. When foraging ramps, Suzie Jones of Jones Family Farm in Herkimer, NY, who makes a fresh ramps chèvre, advises to “take only 10% of what is available” to avoid overharvesting. When possible, replenish with the root stock.

For the close of ramp season, we at The Cheese Traveler recommend a simple puree of the leaves and a pickling recipe for the bulbs.

Ramp Pesto

Ramp Pesto


1 cup walnuts

1/4 lb. parmesano reggiano

1 tsp salt

30-50 ramps leaves and stalks, washed and trimmed

1/2 cup olive oil

Pesto IngredientsCut Ramps

Combine all ingredients in a food processor and blend until the mixture is even consistency. Serve over warm orecchiette pasta or smeared on a slice of fresh bread. Add a slice of prosciutto to taste.

Ramp Pesto Sandwich

Pickled Ramps

Pickled Ramps


3/4 cup vinegar

3/4 cup water

1 tsp sugar

1 tsp pickling salt (we used Himalayan pink salt)

1/2 tsp black peppercorns

1/2 tsp dried hawthorne berries or juniper or coriander

Nora chili flakes (Spanish pepper)

1 bay leaf

1 lb. ramps, washed, trimmed, with leaves removed

Combine vinegar, water, sugar, and salt. Boil and whisk until granules are dissolved completely.

Clean glass pint jars with hot, soapy water to sterilize. Place spices in the bottom of the jar and pack them with cleaned ramps.

Pour liquid over the ramps leaving a 1/2 inch headspace. Tap the jar to loosen the trapped air bubbles. Wipe lids and apply a clean lid and ring.

Seal jars in a boiling water bath to preserve.

If you prefer not to can for long term storage, you can forgo sealing the jars in a boiling water bath. Place the jars in the refrigerator. Let ramps pickle for at least a week before using. They will last up to two weeks.


American Limburger Files: Part 1

by Alifair Skebe

“Oh they have Limburger,” a customer exclaims and points to a small, foil-wrapped brick cheese prominently sitting in the center of the cheese case. With the same uncertainty as a flip of a coin, a customer will then smile enthusiastically, or raise an eyebrow, or curl a nostril, or nostalgically sigh: “My grandparents (…or my husband or my great-grandfather) loved that cheese!”

It would seem that a certain generation of the American populace loves and is dedicated to the flavor of the famous Limburger.

Limburger literally means “coming from the place of lime trees.” The cheese takes its namesake from Limburg, a small province on the northern border of Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands and was developed by Trappist monks in the early 19th century. Once exported to Germany, the cheese became wildly popular and a German national staple.

Limburger cheese at homeA classic “smear-ripened” brick cheese, Limburger is a fragrant cheese from the washed-rind family of cheeses and similar to Epoisses, Tisiter, Taleggio, and Muenster. Brevibacterium linens give the cheese its inimitable essence and taste, and carotenoids lend the cheese its characteristic orange-colored rind. The “smear” comes from the cheesemaker spraying or sponging a Brevibacterium linen bath over the cheese as it ages. The washing keeps the cheese moist, prevents contamination by undesirable bacteria, lends a healthy antibody to the rind, and converts lactose to lactase, a more digestible form of dairy for most people.

Peoples carrying the Limburger tradition from Germany, Austria, Belgium, and Switzerland immigrated to the United States in the latter half of the 19th century, finally settling in Wisconsin and the Midwest, then outskirts of the heartland of American cheese. In point of fact, these immigrants extended the reach of American cheesemaking into the Midwest from its stronghold New York, American’s then-cheese capitol, with Limburger finding its niche in the city of Monroe in Green County, Wisconsin. The immigrants brought with them not only the tradition of Limburger-making, but also a taste for washed-rind cheese, rivaling the then-current, national cheese: English-style cheddar.Monroe Pioneers of the Cheesemaking Industry

Limburger, with its full-bodied, strong flavor, relatively brief ripening period, and noted health benefits, provided a compelling food staple for a working public at the onset of the industrial North. A slice of Limburger smeared on pumpernickel or rye with a dollop of mustard and onions, complimented by a glass of beer and a pickle could warm the heart and go far. A small amount of cheese could satisfy both the tastebuds and the belly.

Limburger, as such, grew to be a working class and immigrant’s cheese, both maligned in an effort to assimilate them into American life. The cheese became the brunt of many an off-colored joke in the decades to follow, first in literature and then in film and radio. Mark Twain’s gothic satire “The Invalid’s Story” played off B-linens’ kinship to body odor and Abbott and Costello, Our Gang (The Little Rascals), and The Three Stooges played their part in castigating the defenseless cheese, relegating it to a seemingly endless recycling of jokes, each shaping the young viewers’ perceptions of it (and the cheese consumer) as an uncouth “stinker.”

Coupled with the rise of The Chemistry Era that promised clean food without contamination, Limburger’s reputation was unduly soiled. Processed foods, rather than the traditional, were the wave of the future. Advertising promised a cheaper, better product than the original, devoid of any bacterial culture—a fatal blow for cheese. In 1937, the same year that Kraft’s sales of boxed mac’n cheese soared, Green County Limburger reached a surplus. Rather than flooding the market with cheese or “plowing it under,” suggested by Chicago Daily News, cheesemakers declared a Limburger Holiday. But this was no restful celebration. The worst was yet to come.

In an article for Lapham’s Quarterly, Ben Schwartz correctly surmises that in the decades following the American Depression, media perception hammered the final nail in Limburger’s proverbial coffin. The good-natured humor once levied against Limburger took a dark and sinister turn. Newspapers reported in 1935 that German immigrant Bruno Richard Hauptmann, otherwise known as the Lindberg-baby killer, had a favorite jail snack of Limburger sandwiches, and in 1948 it was reported that Ohio mass murderer Richard Murl Davis’ last meal consisted of none other than a Limburger sandwich. Once poked at in good sport, the cheese was now linked to “Nazi-types” and to murderers. It was only a matter of time before the tarnished reputation would drive American Limburger cheesemakers to other pursuits.

Untainted by the class and ethnic warfare of the American “melting pot,” Limburger, affectionately termed “Limy,” is well-produced, loved, and consumed abroad. There, the tradition is more about taste and heritage than fitting into an aseptic mold. Henry Dee of Austria recalls of his young adulthood: “There is nothing better than some fresh cold ham, horseradish, a limy, fresh rye bread, and of course, a “humpen” of cold beer. Yep, I’ll be in heaven!”

Many an imported Limburger foil-wrapped brick can be found on U.S. grocery shelves today; however, only one certified Limburger cheesemaker has survived in America—Myron Olson. Chalet Cheese Cooperative, where he works, stands alone as the single domestic Limburger factory, located in the once-proud Limburger capital of the States: Monroe of Green County, Wisconsin. Many more Limburger-lovers have survived and populate the States, nostalgic for the days when Limy sandwiches were commonplace, and they are eager to commune with pleasant past memories of family and friends with a scent and a taste. Some yearn for a good cheese. We aim to deliver both the tradition and the taste experience in the best possible way.

Limburger Tapas

The Cheese Traveler recommends the Limburger classic Germanic pairing: 1) the tapas (or sandwich); rye bread, a smear of Limburger, grain mustard, pickle relish, and a fresh slice of onion; 2) the beer; Blue Label Chimay (some also recommend a Dubbel or a Tripel—we are currently in the process of testing this pairing). And because Limburger is in the washed-rind family, classic sweet pairings from other countries such as France and Italy can offer a delicious alternative to the savory tradition. For a funky fusion experience, try Limburger on rye with a dollop of chestnut honey mustard, aged balsamic, or fig jam paired with a sweet desert wine such as Sauternes. The best pairing can nullify any acidity of the cheese and bring out pleasant nuances in the paste.

Limburger and Accompaniments

If Limburger has peaked your interest and is still beyond your reach, but you want to test your palate on the gooey sublime that only a smear-ripened cheese can offer, try Belgian Charmoix, Irish Ardrahan, Italian Stracchino di Videsta, Californian Red Hawk, or Twig Wheel or Oma from Vermont, to name a few. Each is light, fragrant, earthy, vegetal, slightly yeasty, even eggy, bordering on sweet custard-notes and delightfully soft on the tongue. At room temperature, they open to these complex flavors resounding at different taste regions and linger for minutes still revealing new layers of flavor.

We at The Cheese Traveler want you to test your palate with these cheeses. Mention the blog post between now and March 15, 2013 and we will hook you up with a flight of washed-rind cheeses to taste. You can find your accompanying mustard and relish in our pantry section. And you can pick up a fresh baked-daily from scratch, traditional rye loaf of bread from our next-door neighbor All Good Bakers: W-Sun, 9:30-3. We will offer cheese classes in the coming months, so stay tuned.

Celebrating American Cheese Month

by Alifair Skebe

October is American Cheese Month, begun annually since its inception last year through the American Cheese Society (ACS) and The State of Colorado. While the words “American Cheese” to many American readers may conjure up images of the ubiquitous solid yellow mass that turns into a gooey melty foodstuff, invented nearly one hundred years ago, this iconic symbol of American industrial food culture is not exactly what ACS means to promote. The larger category of American Cheese, including farmstead, artisan, cooperative, as well as industrially-produced natural cheeses is ACS’ prerogative. Like ACS, this month The Cheese Traveler will be celebrating our wide variety of delicious, award-winning, and spectacular small production American cheeses. Still, it’s hard to hear the words American Cheese Month and not indulge in thoughts of processed cheese synonymous with U.S. Patriotism and North American culture.

Adopted from Swiss technology and patented in the U.S. by Ontario-born James L. Kraft, so-called “American Cheese” caught the wave of the industrial revolution that promoted ease, efficiency, and economy in food production driven by the desire of both the producer and the consumer. Swiss food technicians Walter Gerber and Ted Kennel in 1911 discovered emulsifying salts’ and heat’s effect on coagulating naturally aged cheese to produce a new “product.”

This method derived from traditional fondue recipes that use additives such as beer and wine to keep the protein from separating from the oil during heating. Sodium phosphate, tartrate or citrate “help stabilize processed cheese by taking calcium from the milk protein and exchanging it with sodium. This allows the proteins to hold water, thickening the cheese” (Chapman). Cooked curd cheeses such as the German Kochkase and French Concoillotte may also be the conceptual origins of processed cheese for their meltable structure and additives in the ripening process. American Cheddar and Colby, also cooked curd cheeses, were the first cheeses to be used in processed “American Cheese” for their wide availability as well as their meltability.

Zey Ustunol, Professor of Food Science and Human Nutrition at MSU, remarks: “Processed cheese is made from natural cheeses that may vary in degree of sharpness of flavor. Natural cheeses are shredded and heated to a molten mass. The molten mass of protein, water and oil is emulsified during heating with suitable emulsifying salts to produce a stable oil-in-water emulsion. Depending on the desired end use, the melted mixture is then reformed and packaged into blocks, or as slices, or into tubs or jars. Processed cheeses typically cost less than natural cheeses; they have longer shelf-life, and provide for unlimited variety of products.” 

Kraft, a savvy businessman,

James L. Kraft, food industry pioneer

immediately seized on the emerging technology and patented it in the U.S., foreseeing the possibilities for its advancement in and of food culture. Consequently, he secured military food contracts during WWI based on the product’s durability. Upon the soldiers’ return, men who developed a taste for the mild, slightly sweet and salty, standardized taste of the processed cheese found it easily obtainable in the emergent industrial processed food market. Most people at the time, did not have access to cold food storage and Kraft’s cheese did not need refrigeration and could be kept up to ten months, in both warm and cold climates. Processed cheese was more expensive than its predecessor; however, natural cheese was more perishable. It did not have a consistent shelf life and could neither withstand the heat of the southern and western climates, nor the difficulty of interstate shipment. Thus, the processed variety, “American Cheese,” began to unify the modern industrial nation.

On the other hand, traditionally-produced cheese has a long history in North America. Colonial settlers brought European and British cheesemaking traditions to the New World. U.S. cheeses developed in New England and migrated West, first following the Erie canal and its subsidiaries and then the railroad further westward, as cold storage methods improved cheese’s portability, into Ohio, Wisconsin, and beyond to Oregon and the Western seaboard. According to the National Historic Cheesemaking Center: “Puritan woman were the artisans of cheese during [the colonial] period…On the farm, it was almost always the role of women to make cheese and carry on the tradition.” Cheesemaking was a necessity to the settlers, thereby turning what would spoil into a stable product, given the right climatic conditions. The famous words of journalist and critic Clifton Fadiman characterize this economy: A cheese may disappoint. It may be dull, it may be naive, it may be oversophisticated. Yet it remains cheese, milk’s leap toward immortality. By early 1800, cheesemaking moved from New England to the Mohawk region of New York, where the first cheese factory was built, auspiciously in Rome, NY.

view of Rome, NY

As the farmstead U.S. cheese economy shifted to cooperative and industrial models, women’s role in cheesemaking subsided, paving the way for industrial progress and consumer demand. Following the cheesemaking methods developed in NY State factories, US cheese production focused on harder British style cheeses, which came to be known as “American Cheddar.” These cheeses were easier to produce on a large scale, fit well with the development of the industrial dairy model, and provided a more consistent and stable product for consumers. As cheesemaking spread to the Midwest, production of Colby (another British style) and Brick Cheese (Swiss/German style) became a widespread part of American cheesemaking tradition.

Kraft’s production of processed “American cheese” has always relied on the cheesemaking industry because Kraft uses the scraps and byproducts of naturally aged cheese as its foundation. Kraft’s process meted out the variations of the different refuse cheeses, some being mild and others quite sharp, by blending them through both heat and emulsification, thereby creating a very standardized product with little to no variation from one loaf to the next. In addition to its longevity, it had superior meltability, easily applicable to the emerging “fast food” business.

The Great Depression of the 1930s and WWII marked the test case for processed cheese. As women were drawn into the workforce, they needed fast, cheap meals. Kraft’s mac-n-cheese was one such answer. Marketed as a four person meal for 19 cents and a meal in under seven minutes that didn’t need a stove: “By 1930 over 40% of cheese consumed in the U.S. was Kraft’s — and that was in spite of its relatively high price. Thanks to clever advertising, Kraft was able to charge more in exchange for a promise of safety and consistency, even though the product was derived from inferior cheese” (Clark).

While industrially-produced foods and advertising took hold of a large segment of the American population, scarcity encouraged individual industry. Government programs promoted home canning and bringing back the lost art of home kitchen cheesemaking to housewives, such as the 1934 bulletin by the U.S. Department of Agriculture “An American-type Cheese…how to make it for home use.” However, these efforts were eclipsed by the promotion of “American Cheese” through government military contracts provided to Kraft during WWII and subsequently to stabilize milk and cheese prices in the mid to late-twentieth century through government subsidy programs. At this time “American Cheese” became synonymous with “government cheese” offered free to the public and warehoused to offset prices. Sean McCloud, an associate professor of Religious Studies at UNC-Charlotte recalls: “[The Reagan era] was also a period when I ate my share of government cheese, packaged as two-pound blocks of uncut, white American, and distributed at Monon’s community center. We were not poor enough to be on welfare, but we were not so financially secure as to refuse government cheese.” Government endorsement by these means allowed for and promoted the dominance of processed cheese in food culture. Moreover, as consumer (and government) demand increased, Kraft began to dominate the cheese market buying up large producer contracts and effectively pushing small producers and factories, such as cooperatives, farmstead and artisan, out of business. In the later half of the 20th Century through producer and consumer insistence, the USDA developed industry standards and a four-category system for processed cheese, no longer allowing companies to call their processed products “Cheese” and enforcing labeling restrictions. Processed cheese is still promoted by the USDA and reinforced through government programs such as WIC (which only allows for the purchase of processed cheese) as a nutritious alternative to unprocessed varieties.

Since the close of the Reagan-era, the U.S. has seen a resurgence in farmstead and artisan cheesemakers. While American Cheese remains a recognizable comfort food, consumer taste has begun to shift away from standardized and stable industrial cheeses. Consumers also express growing concerns over the additives in processed cheese. Several do-it-yourself guides teach home cooks how to make their own processed cheese so you will “know exactly what went into it” (Ruperti). This is occurring at the same time the Slow Food and Local and Region Food movements have profoundly encouraged interest in small cheese producers across the nation.

The American Cheese Society promotes the cheesemaking industry on a variety of levels from the consumer to the cheesemaker to the retailer. Moreover, ACS promotes continued development of American cheeses from old world traditions to newer ones through education and yearly awards at its annual conference and American cheese competition. The Cheese Traveler stands with ACS in promoting a diverse image of American Cheese and supporting small cheesemakers. This month we will celebrate the great taste and craftsmanship of American cheese. Watch for our meet the cheesemaker demos and promotions that feature our great American cheese selection.

from “The Stellar American-Made Cheese Plate,” J.J. Goode, May 2010,


“Brief History of Cheese.” National Historic Cheesemaking Center. Monroe, WI. 2009

Chapman, Sasha. “Manufacturing Taste: The (un)natural history of Kraft Dinner—a dish that has shaped not only what we eat, but also who we are.” The Walrus. Sept 2012

Clark, David. “A Brief History of “American Cheese,” from Colonial Cheddar to Kraft Singles” Mental_Floss. Jan. 7, 2009

Durand Jr., Loyal. “The Migration of Cheese Manufacture in the United States.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers. 42.4 (Dec 1952): 263-282.

McCloud, Sean. “Indiana: A Hoosier Remembers Eating Government Cheese.” Religion and Politics: The States Project. Washington University, St. Louis. August 22, 2012.

Ruperti, Yvonne. “How to Make American Cheese.” America’s Taste Kitchen Feed: Do-It-Yourself. Sept. 2011.

Urban, Shilo. “American Cheese: Neither American Nor Cheese.” Organic Authority. 2010.

Ustunol, Zey. “ Processed Cheese: What Is That Stuff Anyway?” Michigan Dairy Review. 14.2 (April 2009).

 Walter, H. E.. An American-type cheese : how to make it for home use.. Washington, D.C.. UNT Digital Library. 

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.