On this day in 1815, the world’s first commercial cheese factory began operating in Switzerland, ushering in the mass industrialisation of one our most popular and ancient foods. With the introduction of industrial production, types of cheeses, like so many other foods over the past two centuries, were standardised and rolled out on a global scale—the intricacies of local characteristics often left behind.
Evidence of cheese production is found as early as the Egyptians, however it is thought that humans were producing it long before then. One legend has it that a merchant crossing the Arabian desert poured milk into a pouch made from a sheep’s stomach. The combination of the strong sun and the rennin from the stomach lining caused the milk to congeal, and as the merchant journeyed the milk separated into curds and whey. That evening, or so the story goes, the hungry merchant was the first human to eat cheese (i.e. the curd).
Cheese is produced from a variety of animals, most commonly cows, ewes and goats, but also water buffalo, yaks, horses and llamas. Beyond the source of the milk, the taste of cheese is altered by a variety of variables, including the treatment and temperature of the milk, along with added ingredients. Over the centuries, especially in the cool climate of Europe, certain regions became well known for their singular tasting cheeses.
Popular European cheeses today—like French Brie, Dutch Gouda, English Cheddar and Italian Parmesan—all originate in the mid to late middle ages, and many, like Parmesan, remain very close to their original form. However, with industrial processing, some of these cheeses were stripped of their defining local traits and delivered to the mass market. As a result, cheeses were standardised and thus introduced to a number of regions in Asia, Africa, and South America where cheese had not been seen before, or were at least not part of the normal diet.
Following the cue of the Swiss, 19th and 20th century America went gangbusters over industrial cheese production. To keep pace with demand, milk was sourced from numerous ever-growing dairy farms, rennet was mass produced, and scientists were employed to help standardise the taste. By World War II, consumption of traditionally produced cheeses was overtaken by factory-produced cheese. For years, disdainful Brits had referred to American cheese as “factory cheese,” but this was only the beginning.
Photo Credit: © PETER KLAUNZER/epa/Corbis
Photo Caption: Farmers and cheesemakers handle loafs of cheese during a traditional cheese festival in Switzerland.