The pursuit of cheese stretches back thousands of years: according to ancient legend, the first cheese was created via sheer happenstance, the product of an Arabian merchant who stored his milk in a sheep’s stomach, only to find days later that the milk had separated into curds and whey. The oldest recorded cheese making enters the record around 7,500 years ago, from archaeological remains found in an ancient cattle-rearing village in what is now Poland. Romans—master cheese makers in their own right—spread the concept of cheesemaking north to Europe, where the practice flourished under the watchful eye of monks. Today, there are some 1,400 varieties of cheese in the world.
How can so many varieties stem from such a simple set of ingredients? At its core, all cheese comes from curds, the tangled bits of protein that arise from soured milk. But how cultures have taken those curds and added flavor—from spices to mold—has helped transform cheese from a simple combination of dairy and acid into a worldwide agricultural product.
Some variations of cheese came into existence by complete happenstance. According to local lore, Roquefort, a famous and pungent French blue cheese, was first invented by a shepherd who left his lunch of bread and cheese sitting at the entrance to a cave while he went off to pursue a young shepherdess that had struck his fancy. Upon returning to the mouth of the cave to collect his lunch three months later, he found that the cheese had sprouted mold.
Other cheeses are a product of deliberate choices, made to last in the face of environmental constraints. The hard cheese produced in Gruyere, Switzerland, was created to last an entire summer high in the Swiss mountains, so that peasants charged with tending to the herds of cows wouldn’t have to make the climb to milk their cows grazing high in the mountains—they would just stay up there with them. The cheese makers invented a novel process of cutting the coagulated milk that made a smaller curd than normal, which in turn lowered the cheese’s moisture content and made it a longer-lasting cheese.
Today, the United States is the world’s number one producer of cheese, cranking out more than 30 percent of the world’s cheese. But a wealth of cheese—and cheese options—doesn’t necessarily keep it on the shelves of stores: four percent of the world’s cheese is stolen each year, making cheese the number one stolen food item on Earth.