Cheese of Antiquity

by Lady Katerina Owcza Kobieta

Lady katerina adding rennet
To give you an idea of how old the art of cheesemaking is, the history books tell us that man must have known about making cheese before he invented writing. A Greek historian named Zenophon, born in 349 B.C., wrote about a goat cheese that had been known for centuries in Peloponnesus. I've read that the oldest cheese is the Arabian Kishk which was made from coagulated goat's milk and then dried. This is probably the cheese that David carried with him when he heard about Goliath.

It's interesting to speculate how cheese might have been discovered. Most have heard the story about the nomad who poured the milk for his midday meal into a bottle made from a sheep's stomach, and set out on his journey across the desert. When he stopped for lunch and tipped the skin to drink the milk, he discovered solid chunks, and instead of the white milk, a yellowish liquid. The rennet from the lining of the stomach had curdled the milk, separating it into curds and whey.

More about cheese ....

Cheese cloth ready for the curds and whey
The first step in cheesemaking is to coagulate milk solids into a curd. The two basic ways of doing this are acid coagulation and rennet coagulation. Each way has many variations, and sometimes both methods are used in combination to produce varieties of cheeses.

You can cause acid coagulation either by adding an acid such as vinegar or lemon juice, or by adding a bacterial starter culture which turns the lactose (milk sugar) into lactic acid. When adding vinegar or lemon juice, the important thing to remember is that the lower the temperature, the more acid is required to coagulate the milk; the higher the temperature, the less acid is required. When a starter culture is added to milk at room temperature, the bacteria consume lactose and produce lactic acid as a byproduct. Over a period of time, the starter bacteria produce sufficient lactic acid to coagulate the milk.

Rennet is an enzyme that coagulates warm milk and causes the cheese curds to form. Although enough acidity alone will coagulate milk, rennet helps speed the curding process and forms a stronger, firmer curd.

It is important to develop the proper amount of acidity in the milk. The lactic acid that the bacteria produce helps the rennet coagulate the milk, aids in expelling the whey from the curds, and helps control the growth of pathogens (bad bacteria) in the finished cheese. This starter culture is also responsible for much of the flavor development in aged cheese. In cheese made from raw milk, it's common to use no additional starter culture at all, relying instead on the lactic bacteria normally present to ripen the milk and depart a characteristic flavor. Milk that is increasing in acidity due to starter activity is refered to as "ripening," and milk that has reached the proper degree of acidity is considered "ripened."

When the milk has ripened for the proper amount of time and is still at the right temperature, it is time to add the rennet. The diluted rennet is stirred into the milk and allowed to set undisturbed until a solid curd is formed. A curd is considered "set" when a finger (or dairy thermometer) can be inserted into it, and the curd breaks cleanly all around as you lift sightly. Then the curd is cut or handled according to the directions for the cheese you're making.

Seperating the curds and whey

More about bacterial starter cultures ...

There's a great variety of starter cultures that produce an enormous selection of cheeses. Starter cultures are combinations of dairy bacteria introduced into the milk to help produce the flavor of the cheese. They are classified as either mesophilic or thermophilic. The mesophilic, or moderate temperature, bacteria are used when the curds aren't going to be warmed to over 102 degrees Fahrenheit. This would include cheeses such as cheddar and Gouda. Thermophilic bacteria can withstand greater temperatures and are used when heating the curds as hot as 132 degrees F. The bacteria responsible for producing Swiss and Italian cheeses fall into this category.

As an example, mesophilic cultures include streptococcus lactis, streptococcus cremoris and streptococcus diacetilactis. Examples of thermophilic cultures would include streptococcus thermophilis and lactobacillus bulgaricus. For most home cheeses, we can utilize store-bought cultured buttermilk as a source for mesophilic cultures, and cultured yogurt as a handy source of a thermophilic culture.

More about rennet ....

Everyone gets into it
Rennet is available as both animal and vegetable derivatives. Rennet that is an animal derivative contains an enzyme called rennin and is found in the fourth stomach of calves, lambs, kids and similar animals. Today, calf rennet is the most readily available animal rennnet. Vegetable rennet is an enzyme derived from the mold mucor miehei. Both animal and vegetable rennets are marketed in tablets or liquid form. The tablets are easier to store and keep longer than the liquid, but the liquid is easier to measure accurately. Both should be stored in the refrigerator and kept away from long exposure to light. Vegetable rennet may be preferred by some people, but calf rennet will produce the highest quality cheeses.

Both animal and vegetable rennet were used in ancient times. From what we know from obscure references, in some areas plants were the chief agents used to clabber milk. After a time these methods gradually fell into disuse, until by now they are almost totally forgotten.

There are a number of plants that have coagulating properties. In ancient Rome, cheesemakers used an extract made from the bark of the fig tree. Zeus was supposed to have eaten a cheese made by coagulating milk with fig juice. Rumor has it that once upon a time farmers in northern Europe would feed a plant called "butterwort" to their animals just before milking time. It was believed that this would cause the milk to automatically coagulate within a few hours after milking. The flower of the thistle plant (cynara cardunaculus) is used in Portugal to make sera de estrella cheese.

One plant that can be used for a rennet is stinging nettle (urtica gracilis). To make, boil a pound of stinging nettle in just enough water to cover for twenty to thirty minutes. Strain off the liquid and add as much salt as will dissolve with agitation. With home-brewed extracts, it's difficult to know how much of the infusion to use because of the variability of its strength and the milk's acidity. A good starting point would be one-half cup of nettle infusion per gallon of milk.

Note: the high salt content of this type of infusion makes it unsuitable for cheeses that are ripened a significant length of time after the rennet has been added because the salt inhibits the ripening characteristics of the curd. It will work best for cheeses that are salted shortly after the curd has formed, and less salt will be needed during the salting step.

The dried flowers of the cardus species of sunflowers can also be used. Dry the blossoms and grind them to powder with a mortar and pestle. Dissolve a couple of teaspoons of the powder in one-half cup of water, then add the infusion to the milk the same as if using a rennet solution.

Papain and bromelin from papaya and pineapple have been used, but with inferior results. There are various other microbial sources of substances that seem to do a fairly good job, but they are not yet of practical interest to the home cheesemaker. Regular rennet from animal sources seems to be the most effective, both as far as the quality of the curd and in the curd's ability to expel the whey.

Before the days when modern laboratory technology produced a standardized rennet, most cheesemakers made their own on the farm. When they slaughtered a lamb, calf or kid, they cleaned and salted the stomach and hung it up to dry. Then it was stored in a cool place, and at cheesemaking time, they broke off a small piece of the dried stomach and soaked it in cool water for several hours. Then they added a bit of the solution to the ripened milk to produce a curd.

Another farm method involved the stomach of a calf or a kid slaughtered at not more than two days old. The stomach would contain milk with a high percentage of colostrum. This first milk was carefully removed, and set aside while the stomach was thoroughly cleaned inside and out. Then the colostrum was returned to the stomach which was sealed and hung in a cool place to age. The colostrum would set into a lard-like substance, which would then be cold stored in a tightly covered container. A "thumbnail's worth" of this paste would be used to set two gallons of milk. Some folks also added some finely grated cheese to the colostrum as it was returned to the stomach to age. This produced a finished rennet that was culture and coagulant all in one.

Another variation on this theme requires a young animal that has been milkfed only. After slaughter, the stomach is removed and treated so that it will not be exposed to flies and bacteria while drying out. The ancient way was to just roll the stomach in the ashes of a campfire since the lye in the ash would prevent fly eggs from hatching. Once it was thoroughly covered in ash, it would be hung up somewhere safe to dry. Once fully dried, the stomach was taken down and opened up. The milk, which by now has been reduced to a brownish powder, was collected and stored as a source of rennet. It's important to store this type of rennet in a cool place, since heat will cause the enzyme to break down.

Take a teaspoon of the brownish powder and grind it thoroughly. Remove an eighth teaspoon and put it in a cup. Add a drop of water and mix it in. Keep adding drops of water, one at a time, until you have a thick paste. Add lukewarm water to dissolve the paste, just as you would when using a commercial rennet tablet. This will produce enough rennet to coagulate 8 to 12 gallons of milk.

One student gets the best view


Feta is a heavily salted cheese which has its origins in the mountains of Greece and was made from sheep or goat milk. Its manufacture is quite similar to queso de cabra which is probably the most ancient true cheese. It is very likely that this is just a variation of that same cheese passed down from generation to generation from ancient times, and then preserved by the mountain shepherds of Greece. To this day, it remains the staple cheese of these people. It is a soft cheese which is ready to eat in a week, but can be stored in a cool place in a brine solution for a month.

As might be expected for a cheese made in relatively primitive circumstances, it is easy and fast to make. No starter is needed since fresh, raw milk is used, but adding a small amount of cultured buttermilk to the warm milk will help develop some acidity and add flavor to the cheese. The temperature of the milk should be between 86 and 90 degrees F. and should not be allowed to go below 86 degrees at any time during the process. This process works best on a warm day, with milk fresh from the goat.

To make feta cheese, start with 2 gallons of fresh, whole goat milk still warm from the morning milking. Add 1/2 cup cultured buttermilk and stir. Allow to ripen for 1 hour.

Dissolve 1/2 rennet tablet (or one teaspoon liquid rennet) in 1/2 cup cool water. Stir gently into the milk for about 2 minutes. Cover and allow to set for 1 hour. This will form a solid curd.

Cut the curd into 1/2 inch cubes. Allow to set undisturbed for 10 minutes; then gently stir the curd for 20 minutes. During this process, the curds firm up and express the whey.

Line a colander with cotton muslin cheesecloth. Pour the curds into the lined collander. Tie the four corners of the cheesecloth into a knot and hang to drain for 4 hours.

Take the bag down and slice the curd into 1 inch cubes. Place the cubes in a bowl or crock and sprinkle with 4 to 6 tablespoons of coarse flake salt making sure that all the cubes are covered with salt. Cover bowl and allow to age in the refrigerator 4 or 5 days.

If a stronger flavored cheese is desired, store the feta in a brine solution in the refrigerator for up to a month. The brine solution is made by adding 1/3 cup of coarse salt to a 1/2 gallon of water.

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