Quick Notes

  • Cheese has been around for thousands and thousands of years, with evidence of cheesemaking dating way back to the ancient Egyptian era

  • It was first considered an elite social food in ancient Rome, where it was often imported for its delectable qualities

  • The first cheese factory was unveiled in Switzerland in 1815, before New Yorker Jesse Williams popularized cheese factories in 1851

Cheese is definitely one of the most popular food products out there in the world right now. Though the dairy industry has definitely gotten some bad press in recent years, it hasn’t changed the minds of cheese enthusiasts all over the world who will defend their favorite dairy product to their dying breath.

When did cheese first come onto the scene, though? Who discovered it, and when did it become so ubiquitously popular? There are a variety of theories out there, so let’s explore just a few of them.

It’s a good thing it ages well, because cheese has been around a while

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Cheesemaking began, at the very least, over seven thousand years ago. There is a variety of archaeological evidence available that depicts cheese being made in ancient Egypt, which is testament enough to its longevity, but evidence also suggests that cheesemaking long predates recorded history.

Despite there being no conclusive evidence of where exactly cheese originated, it is popularly hypothesized that cheese began its journey to legendary-status in Europe. This is partly due to the fact we know cheese first started to become a highly praised good during the era of ancient Rome, with some of the finest cheeses being transported to Rome for the elite to enjoy.

Dairying practices have been present from as early as 4000 BC

It wasn’t just Europe where cheese was popular, however. In the grassland regions of the Sahara in Africa, evidence of dairying practices has been present from as early as 4000 BC.  It’s believed that hard salted cheese will have accompanied dairying practices almost immediately, due to the preservation required for milk in warmer climates.

It’s speculated that aged cheeses, with their distinct and sharp flavors (such as blue cheese), first emerged in Europe. This is because the cooler climate required less salt for preservation; with less salt microbes were more likely to flourish within the cheese, providing the unique taste.

Mass production brings around mass popularity

Though the very first factory for the mass production of cheese actually emerged in Switzerland in 1815, credit often goes to New Yorker Jesse Williams due to the popularity that immediately followed. Williams began producing cheese in the fashion of an assembly-line in 1851 using cheese gathered from local dairy farmers. From there, hundreds of dairy producers began arriving onto the scene, and the popularity of cheese as we know it today found its roots.

When the WWII era began, factory-produced cheese overtook the more traditional dairy farming practices as the predominant form of cheese making, and it’s been that way ever since. Factory-produced cheese remains the most prominent source of cheese throughout both America and Europe.

So, even though we can’t say for sure who originally discovered the wonders of cheese, we can say two things. One: that it’s been around a very, very long time, and two: thank you, Jesse Williams, for popularizing it for the masses. We salute you.

A deeper dive – Related reading on the 101

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