Cheese has been the basis of many culinary love affairs and many photographic memories. Cheese has a long and rich history but we are only beginning to understand its secrets. It’s more than just flavor, cheese is literally, like a drug.
Brief history of cheese
Today, we associate the dairy delight as a finely crafted delicacy, but cheese actually began as a food staple. Cheese is essentially preserved milk and much like our ancestors used to cure meat, so too did they cure milk. The preservation process for milk led to an entirely new food branch, with radically unique flavours.
Cheese production actually started in Asia and the Middle East some 5000 years ago, before spreading to Europe where new techniques and varieties were invented. Europeans gave us the foundation for all the classic cheeses we know and love, evolving to a finely crafted science to blend the perfect variety. The secret? It’s all about the milk.
Milk makes the cheese
It’s no surprise the special place cheese has in many people’s culinary hearts. Milk is the ultimate life-bringer, which makes cheese life’s elixir. The first food any newborn consumes is the milk from their mother’s teat.
Milk is a blend of fat, sugar, salt, water and protein; the two most important proteins being curd and whey. In cows, the amount of protein is much higher than in humans, which makes cow milk unsuitable for the undeveloped digestive tract of infants. However, it is the high proportion of curd proteins in cow milk that make it perfect for making cheese.
The composition of milk ultimately determines the richness of the cheese, which is in turn determined by the animal’s breed, diet and environment. While traditional cheeses were known for their vibrant taste and aroma specific to their region and climate, commercial cheese making saw a decline in quality.
Beginning in the USA in the mid 1800s, large scale standardised cheese production began to service non-local communities. The economic advantages of these industries saw adoption across USA and Europe, where the onset of WWII eventually saw a steep decline in cheese diversity and quality. Thankfully, traditional cheese practices are on the rise and the ambrosial essence of cheese is returning.
An early science
Along with the invention of beer, cheese making remains one of the earliest forms of biotechnology. The preservation process begins with the acidification of milk by bacteria and the addition of rennet, a fancy name for enzymes from an animal stomach. The bacteria converts sugar to lactic acid and along with the natural acidity of rennet, milk pH is lowered.
This allows the curd proteins to bundle together in a large mass, where they can be separated from water and whey proteins. It’s this removal of water that concentrates the milk. By the end of the curing process, cheese will be a 5 to 10 times concentrated source of milk.
After the curd is isolated, salt is added to prevent spoilage and the ripening process begins. The ripening process is dependent on the temperature and humidity of the cheese environment and enables enzymes to break down proteins into smaller fragments, giving different flavor profiles. The longer the ripening, the richer the flavor.
A cheese left for a short amount of time in a relatively humid environment might give you a camembert or mozzarella, two cheeses that have a soft texture and mild flavor. Comparatively, the intensity of a cheddar or parmesan comes from a low moisture environment after years of aging.
Your love is my drug
Milk and cheese are both important foods in our humanity, but we are only now beginning to understand its role in human biology. Cheese addiction is something many of us have experienced and recent advances have pointed to one culprit: opioids.
Milk contains compounds known as caseins, which can metabolise in the intestinal tract to form morphine-like opioids. Casein in mammalian milk exists in low concentrations to encourage calves to drink, while also preventing nipple calcification.
However, when milk is concentrated as cheese, so too does the casein. This gives rise to addictive properties, which have led some to rename cheese ‘dairy crack’. But addiction is the least of the problems that come with these opioid compounds. While no direct cause and effect relationship has been established, it has been suggested that the casein metabolite casomorphin may be responsible for a range of diseases.
When milk or cheese is ingested, casomorphins can enter the blood stream. In expectant mothers, these may pass onto the prenatal foetus, possibly leading to sudden infant death syndrome. Casomorphins have also been linked to autism, postnatal psychosis and a range of health ailments in hypersensitive children. It should be stressed that no direct proof has been obtained and that caseins do have other helpful roles in the body.
We are food
Cheese has a marvelous history and an important place in our humanity. It’s easy to forget sometimes how the food around us shaped our day to day lives, for better or worse. In the case of cheese, it’s either the elixir of life or the grim reaper.