The history of cheese
Cheese first appeared somewhere around 7,000 B.C. in the Neolithic period, which is at about the same time humans began to breed livestock. Legend has it that a desert nomad was transporting milk in a pouch made from a sheep’s stomach. Eventually, the rennet in the lining of the pouch, combined with the heat of the sun, caused the milk to separate into curd and whey. Curious, and no doubt hungry, the nomad drank the whey and tasted the curd. We can safely guess that he enjoyed the experience! This method of transforming milk was kept a closely-guarded secret for many years. In ancient Egypt, for example, only priests were privileged with this secret.
The word “fromage”, French for cheese, comes from the Latin “forma”. Originally, curdled milk was placed in perforated moulds to allow the whey to drain away. The Latin word for these containers was “forma”. Around the13th Century, forma became formage and finally in the 15th Century formage became fromage. The word cheese on the other hand comes from the Latin caseus, which translated into cese in Old English and eventually became cheese!
At first, the Romans and the Greeks considered cheese a luxury food, accessible only to the wealthy. Eventually though, it became a staple food that was used in both sweet and salty dishes. During the Roman Empire, cheese-making had advanced to the point where over thirteen varieties of cheeses were produced. It was during that time in fact that, in an effort to perfect the curd-draining process, the Romans invented the cheese press, a technique that they exported as far as Great Britain.
It was during the Middle-Ages that European monks invented ripening and ageing techniques for cheese. The monks produced milder-tasting cheeses. In the Jura and the Alps, communities of mountain farmers would get together in dairy associations, enabling them to produce first-rate, quality cheeses. In the 7th Century, many cheeses came to be known by the region in which they were produced. Names such as le Poitou, Munster, Gorgonzola and Maroilles are now commonplace.
In 1217, Blanche de Navarre sent two hundred Brie cheeses to
Philippe Auguste so that he may offer them to the women he was
courting…even back then, the nutritional virtues of cheese
In the 13th Century, in Déservilliers, France, the first known cheese cooperative was created by women dairy farmers looking to increase their revenues from milk production.
In the 16th Century, Queen Elizabeth I was instrumental in officially promoting Cheshire cheese, a product that had being produced for three centuries.
The soft cheese industry got started around 1850 by Charles Gervais after his visit with a farmer, Dame Héroult, who made fresh, unripened cheese. The man behind the “petits suisses”, Gervais perfected a technique that involved draining the curds by layers. Pressure was created by piling the canvas bags containing the curds one on top of the other.
In the 19th Century, a chemist and biologist named Louis Pasteur proved that heating milk at sufficiently high temperatures for a specific amount of time could destroy pathogenic bacteria. The process came to be known as pasteurization.
The Vache qui rit was created in 1921 and the Bleu de Bresse appeared around 1950. The Caprice des Dieux quickly followed in 1956.
In the 20th Century, new industrially-made cheeses started to appear on the European market. The first television ad for cheese (le Boursin) aired in France, in1968.
According to historians, Samuel de Champlain brought
cheese-making to Canada when he arrived in New France with a herd
of bovine. In those days, many cheeses were already being made
according to the techniques developed in France.
The Canadian cheese-making tradition was influenced by both its English and French heritage. The French brought their techniques for making soft ripened cheeses, while the English contributed their expertise in making firm and hard-curd cheeses.
Canada was one of the first countries to apply the techniques of pasteurization and was also the first to introduce strict hygiene laws covering milk-processing and cheese-making. Through the years, new discoveries on the nutritional properties of cheese, bovine genetics and milk refrigeration introduced in 1890 played a major role in the evolution and quality of the over 150 varieties of Canadian cheese on the market today.
According to Statistics Canada, it was in 1864 that the first commercial cheese factory, The Pioneer, was built in Norwhich, Ontario, by an American named Harvey Farrington.
Canada began exporting cheese at the beginning of the 19th Century. Today, Canada is one of the most important exporters of Cheddar. The largest part of the production is sent to the United Kingdom, one of the biggest consumers of cheddar cheese.
The expertise of Canadian cheese-makers is recognized throughout the world. In 1986, a Cheddar made by Ontario’s Ault Foods Ltd won the enviable title of “Best cheese in the world” at the World International Cheese Competition.
The Trappist Monks of Manitoba and the Benedictine Monks of Saint-Benoît-du-Lac in Quebec are well-known for producing excellent, quality cheeses.
Statistics Canada defines the term “specialty cheese” as including all factory-made and artisan cheeses other than Cheddar, cottage or melted cheese.
Near the end of the 17th Century, the inhabitants of l’Île
d’Orléans started making a refined cheese. In 1865, the first
Quebec cheese factory was established in Dunham.
In 1881, the first North American cheese-making school was established in Saint-Denis-de-Kamouraska when Edouard-André Barnard converted his barn into a school to improve milking and production techniques.
In 1890, the Perron family founded a cheese factory in Saint-Prime which still produces world-class Cheddar.
In 1892, the Saint-Hyacinthe Dairy School opened its doors and still today remains a leading force in research (bacteriology, chemistry, nutrition), innovation (pasteurization, centrifuge, curdling, cutting) and experimentation in Canadian cheese-making.
During that same year, Marie-Alphonse Juin of Trappe d’Oka produced a cheese that was very similar to the traditional French Port-Salut. It was called Oka cheese and went on to win first prize at the Montreal Exhibition and won again the next year at the Quebec Exhibition. Oka cheese was aged on cypress wood planks obtained exclusively from South Carolina. Very durable, the wood provided the advantage of absorbing any excess humidity in the cheese and restoring it when necessary. For 75 years, the Cistercian Monks of Oka continued to make their cheese until they finally sold it to a commercial cheese company.
It was in 1910 that Canadian cheese-makers first began to produce Camembert and Feta. In 1943, the Saint-Benoît Monastery introduced a blue cheese that is unique to Quebec: the Bleu l’Ermite.
In 1972, at the prestigious World International Cheese Competition, two Quebec-produced cheeses, a Cheddar and a Brick, won first and third prize respectively. At the same competition in 1976, a Brick from the Coopérative agricole de Granby took home the prize.
In recent years, the artisan cheese-makers of Quebec have been participating in various promotional initiatives such as the Festival des fromages de Warwick, launched in 1995, and the Route gourmande des fromages fins du Québec, created in 1998. A joint venture of the Conseil de l’industrie laitière du Québec (CILQ) and the Association laitière de la chèvre du Québec (ALCQ), the Route gourmande is a great incentive for amateurs to travel the province and discover wonderful cheeses from our own terroir.
In Quebec, over two billion litres of milk are converted to cheese every year. This number corresponds to close to 55% of total Canadian production and close to 75% of Canadian specialty cheeses.
The arrival of the Migneron was a first for Quebec; the cheese
is made exclusively in Charlevoix. The milk used to produce the
Migneron comes from six herds of milk cows that are all raised on
the same feed. Made from pasteurized milk, this unctuous, semi-firm
curd and washed-rind cheese is aged for 45 days. Not only does it
melt in your mouth, it has a wonderful, mild hazelnut taste.
The Quebec cheese-making industry has been soaring steadily ever since; today, cheese lovers can enjoy an impressive variety of cow’s, goat’s and lamb’s milk cheeses. The fine quality and distinct taste of all these wonderful regional cheeses are a testament to the knowledge and expertise of our Quebec artisan cheese-makers.
It would be a shame not to let yourself be tempted, don’t you think?