Cheesemaking is a very old art--older than recorded history. We don't know for sure when and where it started. Possible dates range from 8000 BC (the beginning of sheep domestication) to as recent as 3000 BC. Cheese is thought to have originated in either the Middle East or Central Asia. Evidence of cheesemaking has been found on ancient Egyptian tomb murals from about 2000 BC.
One theory of the development of cheese is that it was discovered by accident. Ancient peoples often used animal skins and inflated internal organs to store things. Storing milk in an animal stomach would cause it to curdle because of the enzymes (or rennet) that are in animal stomachs. The milk would have separated into curd (the solid stuff) and whey (the liquid stuff). Salting and pressing the curd to preserve it longer may have lead to the development of cheese.
The first cheeses were probably similar to cottage cheese or feta
By the time of ancient Rome cheesemaking had become a mature art, not very different from traditional cheesemaking methods used today, and cheese itself had become a common food. A large variety of cheeses were available as cheesemakers had learned that different methods and storage conditions created cheeses with different textures and flavors. Some of these cheeses are still around, such as Pecorino Romano.
Cheese became an export product and was shipped to various countries along the Mediterranean. Foreign cheeses were also imported. The historian Pliny preferred cheeses from Bythinia (near the Black Sea).
As the power of the Roman Empire expanded, do did cheesemaking. The Romans brought the art of cheesemaking to areas where previously it did not exist.
Rome's influence had created a uniform set of cheesemaking techniques throughout Europe. With the decline of Rome and the decrease in long-distance trade, more and more variation in cheese occured as local regions created their own distinct cheeses.
Many cheeses are named after the regions from which they come. For example, Cheddar comes from the village of Cheddar in southwest England. Parmigiano (or Parmesan, as it is often called in English-speaking countries) comes from Parma, Italy. The British Cheese Board claims that Britain has 700 distinct cheeses. Italy and France also have several hundred cheeses each.
Before the modern era cheese was mostly consumed in Europe and the Middle East, and in many places it was unheard of. As European influence spread across the globe, cheese was introduced into other areas of the planet. Through the spread of European and American culture cheese has become better known and more popular.
Modern times have also lead to more and more cheeses being produced in factories. The first cheese factory was set up in Switzerland in 1815, but it was the United States that had the first real success in large-scale cheese production, starting in 1851 in the state of new York. Factories today produce most of the cheese in America and Europe.
Other developments, such as the introduction mass-produced rennet and pure bacterial cultures lead to the ability to produce more cheese and with greater consistency. Modern times have also lead to the development (if you can call it that) of processed cheese. Americans today eat more processed cheese than non-processed cheese.
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