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April 2017
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Historians agree that, at the end of the Palaeolithic Age (10,000 years ago), the transition from the nomadic life of the primitive man to the sedentary life occurred because of the discovery of the possibility to cultivate food plants and raise animals to survive. This was one of the biggest socio-economic revolutions in history and it definitely got cheese production underway, which was born out of the necessity to preserve dairy products for as long as possible.

The Greek origin of the word for cheese (formos) shows us, as often happens, that this food was used in ancient times by almost all the populations of the Mediterranean basin. Greek mythology says that Nymphs taught Aristeo, son of Apollo, the art of curdling and transforming milk and Homer describes the dairy activities of the cyclops Polyphemus who, with meticulous care, had stored a lot of cheese in his cave to mature and which was then eaten by Ulysses and his men.
In fact, already in the 3rd millennium B.C., the Sumerians, an ancient population of Mesopotamia (which today is Iraq), had described the techniques used by priests in charge of dairy production in a bas-relief, called the ‘frieze of the dairy store’ and the sacred worth of cheese in these ancient times is also confirmed in Greek myths.

Greeks created a large variety of cheeses, from soft to hard ones, by mixing the basic ingredient with condiments and flavours from honey, fruit (figs and apples), olives, onions or herbs and this made the places where they were produced famous: Lesbos, Cinto, Crete, Boeotia, Chersonese and then, with the Greek colonisation of Southern Italy, Sicily and Gallipoli. In Ancient Greece, the farming aimed at producing dairy products was made up exclusively of ovine (sheep and goats), animals which are happy with rough pastures and whose function was exclusively related to human nutrition. Cattle, which was used for towing and farming, need to graze on grassy pastures, which were quite rare in Mediterranean countries and thus did not produce a lot of milk due to this lack of grass.
In order to protect their milk from going off, the first shepherds acidified it, resulting in a drink that kept the nutritional characteristics of fresh milk for some time. Later on, they began to make soft cheeses by leaving the milk to coagulate in rush baskets and adding latex from fig trees, thistle or rennet, obtained from the stomachs of milking lambs and kids. Following this, some of these cheeses, which were subjected to pressing or salting, were left to dry, sheltered from sun and wind, so they would become hard cheeses that were less perishable, went well with bread and, once grated, could be used as a condiment for other foods.

The Romans further perfected dairy techniques by beginning to use cows’ milk and, as a result of their conquests, they taught these techniques to people in Northern Italy, Gaul and Germany, popularising the use of cheese and encouraging the people of those lands to begin producing cheese in ways that are still practised today and appreciated all over the world.

Thanks to the Greeks Hippocrates and Aristotle and the Romans Columella and Pliny, we have obtained descriptions of dairy techniques and nutritional advice which were obviously followed by their contemporaries given that cheese, in all its varieties, was a fundamental food for all classes of society.

The tragic and long crisis that was the result of the fall of the Roman Empire, meant that sheep-farming had an even more important role in nutrition as the population was reduced to eating primitive foods, and cheeses, both soft and hard simple cheeses, constituted the most substantial (if not the only) food for a long time during the so called Dark Ages.

To really see improvements in living conditions we must look to the ‘little renaissance’ in 1000 AD where, thanks to the adoption of new agricultural techniques and the invention of tools and structures, extraordinary economic, and thus nutritional, progress occurred. Reclamation work on overgrown land and canalisation and irrigation work began and crop rotation systems were rationalised. All of this made available pastures richer and more terrains were used for producing hay, which was advantageous for farming and producing milk and cheese.
The parallel development of towns and trading, and the rise of the middle-class merchant, made the economy, which was split into many sectors, increasingly more dynamic. The dairy business also increased in quality and it was often monks who taught those destined to work in this sector how to produce dairy products domestically.

From the 13th century onwards many Italian sub-regions, particularly the Lombardy Po valley and Parma valley, discovered a strong vocation for breeding livestock and these production capabilities meant that a dairy industry developed which, in the following centuries, became continuously richer and distinguished thanks to ever developing technology and microbiological discoveries.
The availability of milk from various origins (ovine, goats, cattle and, more rarely, equine), the possibility of choosing vegetable or animal rennet, weather and environmental conditions, the quality of pastures and tradition strongly influence the production techniques which determine the large number of different types of shapes and flavours that, still today, characterise the production of local cheeses, the deserved reputation of which is often guaranteed and protected, even at an international level, by protective labels like D.O.P. (Denominazione di Origine Protetta – protected designation of origin) and I.G.P. (Indicazione Geografica dei Prodotti agro-alimentari – protected geographical status).


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