An Animated History of Cheese: 10,000 Years in Under Six Minutes

We can now eat cheese near­ly any­where in the world, and most world cuisines seem to have found — to vary­ing degrees of suc­cess — ways of work­ing the stuff into their native dish­es. But if cheese has gone and con­tin­ues to go glob­al, from where did its jour­ney begin? The TED-Ed video above can tell you that and more, hav­ing been writ­ten by Uni­ver­si­ty of Ver­mont pro­fes­sor of nutri­tion and food sci­ences Paul Kind­st­edt, author of Cheese and Cul­ture: A His­to­ry of Cheese and its Place in West­ern Civ­i­liza­tion. Titled “A Brie(f) His­to­ry of Cheese,” it begins in 8000 BCE in the Fer­tile Cres­cent and arrives at our avid­ly cheese-eat­ing present in under six min­utes.

Human­i­ty’s dis­cov­ery of cheese hap­pened not long after its imple­men­ta­tion of agri­cul­ture. Left under the sun, the milk of domes­ti­cat­ed ani­mals would sep­a­rate into a liq­uid, which we now call whey, and solids, called curds. These curds, says Kind­st­edt, “became the build­ing blocks of cheese, which would even­tu­al­ly be aged, pressed, ripened, and whizzed into a diverse cor­nu­copia of dairy delights.”

Cheese gained pop­u­lar­i­ty quick­ly enough to become a stan­dard com­mod­i­ty, even a sta­ple, through­out the east­ern Mediter­ranean by the end of the Bronze Age. In the full­ness of time, region­al vari­a­tions devel­oped, from the hard, sun-dried Mon­go­lian byaslag to Egypt­ian goat’s-milk cot­tage cheese to south Asian paneer.

Some pop­u­la­tions, of course, have an eas­i­er time eat­ing cheese than oth­ers, and some indi­vid­u­als sim­ply don’t like it. But exam­ined close­ly, few foods reveal as much about human­i­ty’s long efforts to nour­ish itself with as much effi­cien­cy and vari­ety as pos­si­ble as cheese does. “Today, the world pro­duces rough­ly 22 bil­lion kilo­grams of cheese a year,” says Kind­st­edt, “shipped and pro­duced around the globe. But 10,000 years after its inven­tion, local farms are still fol­low­ing in the foot­steps of their Neolith­ic ances­tors, hand-craft­ing one of human­i­ty’s old­est and favorite foods.” And the more you appre­ci­ate that fact — learn­able in greater depth in the accom­pa­ny­ing TED-Ed les­son, the hard­er time you’ll have, say, turn­ing down the cheese course when next you dine at a French restau­rant. Cheese may be rich, but it’s rich not least in his­to­ry.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How to Break Open a Big Wheel of Parme­san Cheese: A Delight­ful, 15-Minute Primer

Leo Tolstoy’s Fam­i­ly Recipe for Mac ‘N’ Cheese

An Ani­mat­ed His­to­ry of Tea

How to Bake Ancient Roman Bread Dat­ing Back to 79 AD: A Video Primer

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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