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COTTAGE INDUSTRY

Our love affair with mountain cheese began in the Iron Age

Reuters/Denis Balibouse
Cheese goes way back.
  • Katherine Ellen Foley
By Katherine Ellen Foley

Health and science reporter

This article is more than 2 years old.

Alpine cheeses may have been one of our obsessions for over 3,000 years.

A paper published in PLoS on April 21 from researchers at Newcastle University and the University of York in England outlines some of the first evidence that humans living in the Swiss Alps around 1000 BC were able to produce cheeses.

Researchers examined 30 recovered fragments of pots from six different sites among the European mountains. A chemical analysis revealed that the pots had residues of compounds produced when milk from animals is heated, which is an important part of the cheese-making process.

Even though cheese-making had been documented earlier at lower altitudes, making cheese in the mountains was an impressive feat for our ancestors. “Prehistoric herders would have had to have detailed knowledge of the location of alpine pastures, be able to cope with unpredictable weather and have the technological knowledge to transform milk into a nutritious and storable product,” Francesco Carrer, an archeologist at Newcastle University and lead author of the paper, said in a press release. “Even today, producing cheese in a high mountainous environment requires extraordinary effort.”

Why make cheese? When produced during the summer months and stored, it may have provided a high-protein food source for mountain residents during the winter. As the climate shifted and left less land for crops and livestock, cheese may have also served as a less land-intensive food to produce.

Cheese may have also been an ancient form of bling. ”The consumption of dairy products and meat were also integral elements in feasting,” the researchers write. They hypothesize that as social class became an increasingly hierarchical, owning and eating products that were more difficult to make demonstrated affluence.

 

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