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.
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.