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From Ancient Egypt to Neal's Yard Dairy

It’s the 4th of June, International Cheese Day!

Cheese, in all its varieties, is a very popular product worldwide. In 2020, consumption per capita was 18.44 kg across the 28 European countries, 17.42kg in the US and 14.28 in Canada. To mark this special foodie day, we investigate the origins of cheesemaking.

One of the earliest records of cheese production is dated 6,000 BCE. Like many of the greatest discoveries, it is believed it happened by accident: milk used to be stored and transported in bladders made of ruminants’ stomachs, that, as we know today, contain rennet, the substance making the milk curdle. It was soon discovered that milk could be kept for longer if condensed, and this was probably connected to the geographical origin of cheeses: artifacts like sieves and holed pottery have been found in Europe, Central Asia, Middle East and Sahara, all places with a very warm climate.

Ancient Greeks and Romans were also familiar with this type of food, but most varieties originated from the Middle Ages onwards: cheddar was born in 1100s, Parmesan in 1597, Gouda in 1697 and Camembert in 1791. However, from the fall of the Roman Empire until Illuminism, cheese production was relatively low, as cheesemaking was considered a “peasant job”. In addition, cheese was not considered a suitable food for a noble table and even harmful to health.

Mass-production started in Switzerland in 1815, but the real industrial break-through came in 1851 in a factory near New York, where Jesse Williams, a dairy farmer, set up the first assembly line, collecting milk from the neighbouring farms. It was also thanks to developments in the chemical industry that in 1860s the mass production of rennet began from pure microbial cultures, making the whole process cheaper, safer and standardised. Cheese gained immense popularity and became even more widely available when refrigerators entered houses from 1913.

How about the UK? Cheese production in England was firstly recorded more than 2000 years ago and, like everywhere else, it was very localised and thrived in farms and monasteries. But with Henry VIII and the creation of the Church of England, a lot of monasteries were closed down, causing once again a decline in cheese production for almost a century. In the 17th century, more modern cheesemaking practices developed; in the meanwhile, cities expanded, offering bigger markets and demanding a higher production. This meant larger dairies and creameries, challenging artisan and local cheesemakers. The turning point for British cheesemaking was Patrick Rance’s Campaign for Real Cheese in 1973. As a result of the publication of his book The Great British Cheese Book, Britain saw a proper Renaissance of local and artisan producers, which grew exponentially.

Today there are more than 200 artisan cheesemakers in the UK. One of GEC’s preferred cheese suppliers – and Maxwell’s (our Development Chef) favourite cheese retailer – is Neal’s Yard Dairy, founded by Randolph Hodgson in 1979. They only sample local and artisan UK producers. To manage the food waste caused by decreased footfall and orders, they have recently launched their “Lucky Dip Cheese” offer: cheese lovers can purchase a “surprise selection” (based on the whatever is left after cutting to order for wholesale) of delicious British cheeses. What a brilliant initiative to go greener and fight food waste!

As a caterer that prides itself of producing great food with global flavours and international flair, the Good Eating Company also uses cheeses from different parts of the world. Just to give you a few mouth-watering examples: Swiss Emmenthal for flavourful pastrami bagels with sauerkraut and gherkins; Greek feta, for beautiful Greek salads; mozzarella and burrata, amazing on a cheese and tomato pizza, with fresh basil to finish; Indian paneer, extremely versatile for both savoury and sweet dishes, and the King of all cheeses: cheddar. A real crowd pleaser, it can be mild or mature, sliced or cut into cubes, blended with others for an amazing mac’n’cheese and used in about another million ways.

How about you? What’s your favourite cheese and how do you use it at its best?

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