For all of the contemporary enthusiasm about cheese, I’m surprised by how little has been written about the history of the cheese and dairy industry in general. Now that’s starting to change, most recently with the publication of Cheese and Culture: A History of Cheese and its Place in Western Civilization by Paul Kindstedt.
In his first book, American Farmstead Cheese, author Paul Kindstedt devoted the first section to a brief historical overview, and spent the balance of the book discussing the finer points of cheese chemistry. Kindstedt notes in the introduction to Cheese and Culture that he wrote the history part of that first book in order to grab readers' interest and provide context for what was intended to be a technical manual. But in the process he became fascinated with the depth and complexity of all of the history that he'd begun to uncover.... and in his new book, Kindstedt revisits the historical side of that earlier project in much more depth.
In Cheese and Culture, Kindstedt focuses primarily on the ancient origins of the production of dairy products and cheesemaking. It's heady stuff: evidence of dairying goes back not just centuries but millennia to as early as 6500 BC in southwest Asia. Technological advances such as the development of the craft of pottery making led to the creation of sieves and strainers that early cheesemakers used to funnel the whey off of coagulated dairy products, enabling the production of increasingly larger quantities of cheese. By 3000 BC, Kindstedt says, cheesemaking was a firmly entrenched part of Egyptian culture. Rennet-coagulated cheeses emerged later and by the era of the Greek and Roman empires (extending through about 500 AD) cheese was an integral part of both the diet and way of life of each of these civilizations.
Kindstedt devotes a lot of time in this book to unpacking the finer points of ancient history; much of it is complex and fascinating, though some reviewers have commented on what they perceive as an "academic" tone to the book. Most interesting for me was Kindstedt’s examination (starting in Chapter 6) of the more modern origins of styles of cheeses that still exist today - though in this context "modern" is relative and we're still looking back at least one thousand years. While it can be hard to visualize what types of cheese might have been made in Ancient Egypt (though Kindstedt does his best to guess), his take on the gradual evolution of more familiar types of cheese is thoroughly engrossing....eating Brie just got a lot more interesting.
In a recent interview on Anne Saxelby's Cutting the Curd, Kindstedt opined that "If cheese can help us understand the origin of civilization, it can help us understand who we are as a species." If food could be said to be a necessary foundation of human culture, then it makes sense that cheese would be a lens through which we might view its development. With Cheese and Culture, Kindstedt has made a valuable contribution to our understanding of the ancient origins of a food still very much enjoyed today.
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Cheese and Culture: A History of Cheese and its Place in Western Civilization by Paul Kindstedt Chelsea Green 288 pages $24.95 hardcover
see the publisher's page here for a summary of news, book-related events and Paul Kindstedt's appearances and interviews.