The history of cheese goes back as far as 6000 BCE, long before the Ancient Egyptians and Homer. There are thousands of varieties of cheese, with local flavor differences influenced by subtle factors such as the type of grass eaten by the cows. Join Active Minds as we trace this cheesy history, including an overview of how it is made and the major categories of cheese. We’ll even cover a couple controversial topics debated by cheesophiles (yes, that’s a word!).

Key Lecture Points

  • The history of cheese goes back as far as 6000 BCE. Over the centuries, cheese has become a staple in the diet of many cultures, providing a nutritious and easily transported source of protein, calcium and vitamins.
  • The United States is the world’s largest producer of cheese, producing 25% of the over 40 billion pounds produced annually worldwide. Wisconsin is the largest cheese producing state (25% of US production), followed by California (21%). Americans, however, are not the largest consumers of cheese. Greece and France lead the world in per capita consumption of cheese.
  • There are thousands of varieties of cheese; yet, the same basic process is used to make them all. The factors determining the different tastes, textures and aromas include: the type of milk used, the terroir from which the milk originated, the fat content and the cutting and ripening processes.
  • There is a growing demand for artisanal cheese, fed by popular support for sustainable agriculture, farmers’ markets, organic food and buying local. Artisanal cheese is made by individual cheese makers in small batches and not in factories. Artisanal cheese makers emphasize purity of ingredients and an appreciation for natural variation from batch to batch and season to season.
  • Cheese enthusiasts debate the merits of cheese made from pasteurized versus raw milk. Partisans of raw cheese contend that pasteurization destroys the natural enzymes and bacteria from the terroir that give cheese unique and complex flavors as well as beneficial nutrients. Proponents of pasteurization point out the need to ensure the safety of the cheese we eat.

Exploration Questions

  • What factors determine the taste and texture of different cheeses?
  • What are the pros and cons in the raw versus pasteurized cheese debate?

Reflective Questions

  • Do you think artisanal cheese is worth the extra cost? Why or why not?
  • Have you ever seen cheese made? Where? What kind? What are your favorite cheeses?

More to Explore

Books For Further Reading

  • McCalman, Max and David Gibbons. Cheese Plate. Clarkson Potter, 2002. 240 pages. The history of cheese, what cheese is and how to make it.
    Click here to order
  • Caldwell, Gianclis and Jeffrey P. Roberts. The Farmstead Creamery Advisor: The Complete Guide to Building & Running a Small, Farm-Based Cheese Business (paperback). Chelsea Green Publishing Company. 2010. 226 pages. Business guide to creating a cheese making enterprise.
    Click here to order
  • Kessler, Brad. Goat Song: A Seasonal Life, A Short History of Herding, and the Art of Making Cheese (paperback). Scribner, 2010. 272 pages. A year in the life of a couple who leave New York City for a Vermont goat farm.
    Click here to order
  • Anderson, Ed and Mary Karlin. Artisan Cheese Making at Home: Techniques and Recipes for Mastering World-Class Cheeses. Ten Speed Press, 2011. 256 pages. A guide to making cheese at home.
    Click here to order