By Paul Partica
There is really no concrete evidence as to when or where the first cheese was made. The art of cheese-making dates back thousands of years, long before recorded history. It is also not known whether it started in the Middle East, Europe, or Asia.
As the story goes, cheese was invented by a traveling nomad who was carrying milk in a leather pouch for his night’s meal. This pouch happened to be lined with the stomach of a calf, which was used for its ability to hold water. It was common practice at that time to use animal skins and internal organs for their ability to hold liquids. While in the pouch, the milk mixed with the natural rennet found in this lining, causing the milk to separate into curds. Hence, whey and cheese were invented.
I thought it might be of interest to know just how long ago some of the more popular cheeses got their start, so following is a little history on some of my favorites.
Swiss Appenzeller dates back over 700 years. This hard cow’s milk cheese made from untreated or raw milk is truly natural, with no preservatives or additives. Its spicy flavor comes from the closely guarded secret herbal bath given it during production and aging. According to the official Appenzeller web page, the exact ingredients of the original herbal brine involve a complex mixture of over 25 different herbs, roots, leaves, petals, seeds and bark. The recipe is enhanced by the fact that these cows graze on lush herbal grasses and fresh hay – never silage. Great care is given to the animals, and the cows are given regular and frequent visits to the grazing fields so everything can remain as natural as possible for them, even in winter.
Gruyere dates back to the twelfth century. It is named after the town of Gruyere, Switzerland, with a castle by the same name. The town is located in the Canton of Friboug and the cheese is produced there, as well as in the neighboring Cantons of Vaud, Neuchatel, and Bern. Milk from silage-fed cows will never make its way into Gruyere production. The area is rich with traditional Swiss chalets and lush green pastures, and Gruyere is manufactured with the finest raw milk from cows that graze only on fresh, lush, green pasturage.
Parmigiano Reggiano dates back to the twelfth century. True Parmigiano Reggiano comes from the Emilia Romagna and Lombardi, and is made from a blend of raw morning milk and skimmed evening milk. Under very strict control, even the whey is used to feed the hogs that produce Prosciutto di Parma. The older, or stravecchio version, is aged over three years. I find it used more as an eating cheese than a grating cheese over pasta and other foods. It is important to not confuse it with Parmesan, a lesser imitation.
Swiss Sprinz is possibly the oldest cheese in Europe. From what I’ve been told, it dates back long before Parmigiano Reggiano. This is a full-fat cheese, meaning that it contains 45 % fat and is very hard. Swiss Sprinz is often used in place of Parmigiano Reggiano. The older, 30-month version has great flavor and tends to be very sharp. It also makes a great eating cheese.
English Stilton dates back to the 17th century. Many of us love and appreciate the well-known Stilton. It has been a favorite of mine since I was first introduced to it in the late sixties. Unfortunately, due to a listeria scare in 1989, its producers decided that, going forward, all Stilton would be made from pasteurized milk, rather than raw milk. Although Stilton was never burdened by being associated with the listeria scare, it seemed like overnight that the century-old production method became no longer.
Stichelton is a new cheese. I mention this cheese because it is basically the old English Stilton, once again made from raw organic milk. This is a new dairy built on the Welbeck Estate in Nottinghamshire, located at the edge of the Sherwood Forest. This cheese is also made from the same starter culture formerly used for the original Stilton. This new/old classic is not always available but is well worth a try when you can find it. It is not better than Stilton, just a little different. I must mention that this cheese does vary from wheel to wheel. I recommend you give this one a taste before you buy, to be sure.
French Brie dates back to the 8th century. Brie is one of the most popular soft-ripening cheeses known, and just about everybody uses it to compare every other soft-ripening cheese. It is unfortunate the raw milk version eaten in Europe is unavailable in our country. The overheated, stabilized Brie we do get here is inferior.
Some other old cheeses that date back hundreds of years are Feta, Gouda, Cheshire and Roquefort. Certainly, there is something to be said about the great quality of these old masterpieces.