Finally we come to the point of this whole series: goat cheese.
Cheese making is one of the first processes nomadic cultures discovered for preserving food. Processed milk (a fancy way of saying cheese) was eaten as early as 6500 B.C and evidence of milk byproducts have been discovered in Stone Age Turkish pottery. The first cheeses were made from sheep and goat’s milk. Later, other mammalian milks were used, such as donkey and zebu milks.
Cheese was “accidentally” discovered by the Bedouin, a group of desert-dwelling Arabic folk. The discovery happened when a Bedouin ate the solid particles from curdled milk that had been stored in a bag fashioned from an animal stomach. The rennin (the enzyme found in rennet) secreted from the animals stomach curdled the milk. Alton Brown mentioned the story in one of his “Good Eats” cheese themed episodes. If you’ve never seen it, here’s a taste (with Alton Brown as the Bedouin):
(Feel free to continue watching past the Bedouin story)
The Hebrews made cheese using animal stomachs and rennin, until Moses (according to the Bible, anyway) declared that the Hebrews could not mix dairy with animal products. Obviously, Moses had never tried a bacon cheddar cheeseburger. Pity.
Of course, that wasn’t the only way to make cheese. Marco Polo reported that the Mongols skimmed cream off the top of milk for butter and laid their skimmed milk in the sun. It curdled, and the curds were pressed into a type of fromage blanc. In Greece, cheese was considered a strengthening food. It was part of the diet of Athenian soldiers and Olympic athletes ate it to keep their strength during the competition.
That’s the more or less factual version of the story. There are other, slightly less factual versions.
In Greece, the pastoral demi-God, Aristæus, son of Apollo and king of Arcadia, invented cheese. As the guardian of herds (like cows, sheep, goats), he most likely made cheese and presented it as a divine gift to humans.
In the Odyssey, Homer writes that the Cyclops, Polyphemus, made goat and sheep cheese:
Odysseus: “We soon reached his cave, but he was out shepherding, so we went inside and took stock of all that we could see. His cheese-racks were loaded with cheeses, and he had more lambs and kids than his pens could hold… he sat down and milked his ewes and goats, all in due course, and then let each of them have her own young. He curdled half the milk and set it aside in wicker strainers.” (Homer 71)
Odysseus and his men discovered the cheese in the Cyclops’ cave and, being famished, ate it. It nourished them and gave them enough strength to slay Polyphemus. Go figure. It almost makes you feel bad for the guy. Odysseus using Polyphemus’ own tasty goat cheese against him. Then again, Odysseus cheated on his wife like a thousand times, so we already knew he was a jerk.
In addition to helping Odysseus kill some poor Cyclops, goat cheese saved a Greek surgeon named Machaon. Machaon fought in the Trojan War and was seriously injured. Nestor, a Greek statesman and King of Pylos, added goat cheese and onions to red wine and fed it to Machaon. It healed him and he lived to inexpertly operate another day.
Cheese making was an activity associated with sexuality. In the novel Daphnis and Chloe, by 2nd century novelist Longus, Daphnis tells Chloe, the daughter of Dryas (Chloe’s adoptive father), he is allowed to marry her while she is making cheese. Why is this related to sexuality? Because the novel Daphnis and Chloe is Ancient Greek Erotica. NICE!
The ancient Greeks also thought cheese aided in digestion: “Why, my cheese, my digestion, why hast thou not served thyself in to my table so many meals?” (Troilus and Cressida, Act 2, Scene III: Achilles to Thersites, pulled from de Vries, 118).
Goat cheese held a special place in the hearts of the ancient Romans. During the time of Pliny the Elder in 23 – 79 A.D., little goat cheeses were made and sent to markets every morning as special treats for Roman shoppers. The cheeses were highly esteemed. Eating it with bread was considered the breakfast of “sober and delicate persons.” (Soyer, 173). Asia Minor, Tuscany, the Alps, the Gauls (the inhabitants of ancient France), and Nîmes supplied Rome with the some of the highest quality goat cheeses.
In the Middle Ages in Europe, pilgrims on the roads of Saint Jacques de Compestello used goat cheeses as money as well as food.
Pasteurization was discovered in 1857 by Emile Duclax and the first goat cheeses were marketed in France in 1935.
And there you have it. Some ancient history and mythology of goat’s cheese. Next up: practical goat’s cheese info.
Keep eating and asking, my friends.
Photos, in order of appearance: