A Brief History of Cheese

The remnants of last night's cheese board: Maroilles coated in paprika, Laguiole and Bleu d'Auvergne

The remnants of last night’s cheese board: Maroilles coated in paprika, Laguiole and Bleu d’Auvergne

At the Tuesday market in Caylus, which stall has the longest queue? No contest: the cheese stall. It’s especially long in summer when the holidaymakers and second homers swell the population. But even in winter you can count on a long wait before you get served. People carry away carrier bags groaning with cheeses of varying smelliness. How did cheese come to play such an important part in the French diet?

Cheese facts

France prides itself on the number and variety of cheeses it produces. Charles de Gaulle was credited with the saying, ‘How can you govern a country with 246 varieties of cheese?’ – a reference to French regional diversity. The number of cheeses varies according to the source of the quote and it’s also been attributed to François Mitterrand and Winston Churchill.

I hate to say this but the British Cheese Board (love the pun) claims that there are ‘over 700 named British cheeses’. National rivalry aside, I haven’t been able to find a definitive answer to the number of cheeses in France, apart from around 400. And it depends on how you categorise individual cheeses.

What about consumption, then? According to website Le Produits Laitiers, France has the highest cheese consumption per head (2010 figures):

France 23.7 kg
Germany 20.7 kg
Switzerland 18.6 kg
Austria 18.3 kg

Brits consume about 10 kg each per year. People in Asian countries eat very little cheese or dairy produce at all.

Origins of cheese

It’s impossible to tell exactly when humans started making cheese but it must date from the origins of farming and the domestication of animals, between 7,000 and 9,000 years ago. The earliest evidence of dairy farming, but not cheese-making, is from the Middle East.

The earliest evidence of cheese-making dates to around 5,500 BC.  Archaeologists unearthed perforated pottery fragments in Poland. Tests showed that they had milk residues attached. Experts concluded that this can only have arisen because of cheese-making.

Our ancestors were lactose intolerant. The gene that enables us to break down lactose started to spread only once dairy farming got underway. Someone discovered that if you separate the curds from the whey you get a soft cheese, which contains much less lactose than milk. So, making cheese might have been a way of converting milk into a more digestible and easily-preserved form.

The Neolithic cheeses were probably more akin to cottage cheese than to Camembert. It has taken thousands of years of experimentation (and accident) to arrive at the wide variety we enjoy today.

The Romans developed the art of cheese-making and brought it to their conquered territories as their empire grew. This is probably when it became established in France. The Latin formaticum was used to describe hard cheese (pressed in a mould). This became formage in medieval French and, finally, fromage. During the Middle Ages, monasteries became centres of cheese-making and it remained an artisanal activity until the 19th century. Factory production really took off after World War II.

Cheese today

Roquefort cheese

Roquefort cheese

Today, like wine and other foods, some French cheeses are protected by the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) label. This certifies that the cheese is produced within a certain geographic area according to defined, rigorous standards. Roquefort was the first cheese to receive AOC status in 1925, followed by 55 others. Cheeses are classified into eight families, e.g. blue cheeses, goat’s cheeses.

We know several people, including French, who don’t like cheese but the SF and I are very partial to it: the smellier the better. My favourites are Epoisses, from the Bourgogne, and Maroilles (Nord-Pas-de-Calais). But I also like the Auvergne cheeses: Cantal, Laguiole, Fourme d’Ambert, Saint-Nectaire.

Which is your favourite French cheese?

You might also like:

Roquefort
A moo-ving experience : la fête de la transhumance
Goats, grain and gremlins
You must be in France when there’s…an egg mayonnaise protection society

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About nessafrance

My husband and I moved to an 18th-century farmhouse in SW France in 1997. I am fascinated by French history, rural traditions and customs and enjoy seeking out the reality behind the myths. I run my own copywriting business and write short stories and the occasional novel in my spare time. My husband appears here as the SF, which stands for Statistics Freak, owing to his penchant for recording numbers about everything.
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18 Responses to A Brief History of Cheese

  1. RobboC says:

    I don’t know why I’ve only just come to your piece about cheese. I’ve certainly read all the ones before and since! The thing I find astonishing is the 23.7kg of cheese that an average Frenchman consumes in a year. I picture him on January 1st sitting with his baguette and penknife, surrounded by almost 100 pieces of cheese, each the size of a 250g pat of butter, and each of which has to be finished in under 4 days.

    Imagine he cuts the “butter pat” into four – that’s what he has to get through each day. No slacking, or it will just be worse tomorrow! It seems to me an astounding quantity. Oh, and there are 60m of them, so isn’t that 1½ million tonnes altogether, or over 40,000 juggernauts full of the stuff? x C

    • nessafrance says:

      I hadn’t thought of it like that. You obviously have a more visual imagination than I do. I’m not sure I’d have too much difficulty getting through that amount of cheese, although for the sake of my health I wouldn’t try! The quantity is even more impressive when you realise that this is just an average. Babies and small children don’t eat much cheese, so someone out there is wolfing down quite a lot. I dread to think of the state of their arteries. But I suppose if they drink red wine with it the paradoxe français kicks in.

  2. amelie88 says:

    I love Comte! Can’t get enough of it and most goat cheeses. Can’t eat Roquefort, that is too strong (though one bite clears my sinuses right up).

    It’s interesting you bring up the fact our ancestors were lactose intolerant. In fact, I think it’s been medically proven that most of the world is actually lactose intolerant so if you find yourself consuming lactose with zero side effects (chances are, you probably experience them and don’t even realize it they are so minor), it’s actually an anomaly. Unsurprisingly, the bulk of people who consume lactose on a daily basis are in Europe/North America. There is an interesting article on the subject here: http://abcnews.go.com/Health/WellnessNews/story?id=8450036 Growing up with a lactose intolerant sister (who also has Celiac’s now which means no more gluten for her either) made me aware of these things. Our pediatrician even told us our bodies are not really made to digest lactose–however, through drinking cow milk/eating cheese, Europeans were able to develop some kind of enzyme to help with the digestion. The rest of the world never really got into the habit of drinking cow milk/eating cheese so their bodies never developed like ours did. And sorry for writing an essay but I think these kinds of things are fascinating.

    • nessafrance says:

      I like most goat’s cheeses but have never been very keen on brebis (ewe’s milk cheese) unless it’s the hard, Basque variety.

      Thanks for the info and the link. Interesting. The article says that around 90% of northern Europeans (in which I count myself as a Brit) are lactase persistent (i.e. retain the ability after childhood to produce the enzyme that digests lactose) owing to genetic mutation that started probably around 7,500 years ago in central Europe because of dairy farming. The gene wasn’t spread where dairy farming didn’t catch on. One of my husband’s granddaughters (Swedish) is lactose intolerant, even though Sweden is the country with the highest percentage of lactase persistent people. Her genes must come from elsewhere!

  3. MarinaSofia says:

    I am determined to try every single type of cheese I can find while I’m living in France. But I keep going back to some favourites (Comte, Tomme de Savoie, Saint-Nectaire). I live on the border with Switzerland, so I also have to try some of the ‘rival’ cheese.

    • nessafrance says:

      Let me know if you find the definitive number of French cheeses! I like Gruyère but am not at all conversant with Swiss cheeses. I bet there are some good local ones – there ought to be with all those cows.

  4. Evelyn says:

    Exploring French cheeses has been one of the joys of living here! I love them all even the smelly ones. The only problem i have with the ‘smellies’ is how they make the refrigerator smell. Any hints on smell-less storage? (besides eating it all and not having left-overs!)

    • nessafrance says:

      Purists would say you shouldn’t keep them in the fridge at all. This is difficult in the summer, of course, when they just run all over the place if you keep them out of the fridge. All I can suggest is to invest in some small, airtight plastic containers and keep them in there. Maybe other readers might have some ideas?

    • Osyth says:

      A cheese dome and if you have one a cave (cellar) if you aren’t blessed with that then a garage works just as well or a garden shed. the dome (should be earthenware) allows good air circulation and the cave, garage or shed a cooler temperature. Voila – it will last a little while. But remember to buy little and often rather than large quantities which are inevitably difficult to keep perfect for any length of time.

      • nessafrance says:

        Thanks for your helpful suggestions, which I will pass on to my friend who commented above. I’ll go along with the garage suggestion. When we lived in England I made my husband keep his Limburger Käser in the garage. Formerly, it was under a cheese dome in the kitchen and the whole house smelled as if a dead body were decomposing!

      • Evelyn says:

        Thank you so much for the suggestions. I will definitely look for a cheese dome. Don’t have a cave or a garage unfortunately, but I think I could manage the garden shed idea. Looking forward to trying small quantities of the stinky stuff!

  5. I am crazy about cheese, and like you, the smellier the better – mmm, roquefort with a little glass of port…or really runny camembert. Have a lovely photo of the kids in front of the sign at the entrance to Camembert when they were little, all wearing the weirdest smiles, as we’d giggled away saying ‘say. Camembert!’Very interesting to see how the etymology developed – in Italian it’s formaggio but I never associated that with the word ‘forma’. In Belgium we really got into Belgian cheeses, one favourite was the abbey cheese Maredsous. But i think my very best (sorry, not French) is the hard and pungent Vieux Bruges….Like Kate, though, we generally avoid cheeses – more for the husband’s health – but boy when he’s not around I indulge!

    • nessafrance says:

      I find Roquefort a little too salty for my taste and prefer Saint-Agur, which is creamier. I haven’t tried either of the Belgian cheese you mention. I must see if they’re available in France.

  6. Kate Swaffer says:

    Wonderful history of cheese Vanessa, thank you. I’d have to say I love all cheese, but these days stay away from it most of the time for health reasons :-(

    • nessafrance says:

      Yes, the downside is the fat content. I’m on statins for inherited high cholesterol but I’m still careful about the quantity of cheese I eat. We only eat cheese when we have guests (and for several days afterwards, since there’s always a lot left over!).

  7. Joanna Lamb says:

    I love most cheeses, we have a local one here in Le Marche and even in our tiny town Penna San Giovanni – a sheep’s cheese called Pecorino which can be seasoned (stagione) or more fresh (fresca) which is lovely and different.

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