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Tech-Savvy Ancient Cheesemakers

Cheese has been around for thousands of years, and so has the technology needed to make it. What better way to inspire ancient peoples to invent new technology than the promise of cheese? Today we’ll look into three different pieces of evidence that show the ancient peoples of the Italian peninsula have been serious about their cheese for a long, long time.

Milk Boilers

Conical Milk boiler

A modern, Alessi Mami Milk Boiler that owes its thanks to ancient technology.

Milk boilers first appeared during Italy’s bronze age, which spanned the second millennium BCE (roughly 2000 BCE to 1000 BCE). Archaeologists have found ceramic vessels that suggest people were making ricotta-type cheeses four thousand years ago. The production of ricotta, and cheeses like it, requires boiling the milk and these ancient ceramics limited frothing and boiling over. Two types in particular seem to be unique to Italy: a shallower bowl version and a cone shaped boiler. These boilers were so impressive that ceramic boilers were still being used by Apennine shepherd cheesemakers in the 19th century and were adapted into the metal versions used today.


bronze cheese grater

A bronze cheese grater from about 450 BCE. Photo credit: Dan Diffendale | Flickr

Fast forward to about 700 BCE and the domination of ricotta-style cheeses was waning on the Italian peninsula. We know this because at this time bronze, and sometimes silver, cheese graters begin to pop up in the graves of wealthy Etruscans. The presence of these graters shows that people were eating hard cheeses that needed grating, like aged pecorinos. The graters were placed in these aristocratic graves alongside utensils made of precious metals and imported luxury pottery, making a compelling case that hard cheeses were a status symbol of the elite. Hundreds of years later, after the formation of the Roman Empire, hard cheeses were still highly valued. They were in demand in Rome particularly, and a cheesemakers who specialized in hard cheeses could make a lot of money.

Vats and Presses

Reconstructed Roman olive press

A reconstructed Roman olive press. Photo credit: Lietmotiv | Flickr

Ancient writers were talking about cheese and hinting at new inventions in the first century CE while the Roman Empire was busy trying to conquer the world. The poet and satirist Martial compiled a list of his favorite cheeses, and one in particular stands out: Luna, a cheese so large it could (theoretically) provide a thousand lunches. Pliny the Elder also commented on how large Luna was, claiming it could reach up to 1,000 pounds! Paul Kindstedt, author of Cheese and Culture, discusses the significance of these references:

“Martial and Pliny no doubt exaggerated the size of Luna cheeses; hyperbole was very common among writer of antiquity. However, it seems clear that these cheeses attracted attention because they were significantly larger than the smallish dry pecorino and caprino cheeses that typically graced Roman life.”

In other words, the Romans must have adapted a new technology that allowed them to make large cheeses. The trick with large cheeses is moisture content and salt. Too much moisture in a large cheese means it cannot dry out properly. Salt takes longer to diffuse throughout a larger cheese. This combo of too much moisture and too little salt in a Mediterranean climate means abnormal fermentation and rotting (gross).

So, the Romans must have adapted a high-temperature or high-pressure cooking technique for their large cheeses.

Large bronze vats, like the ones used on Roman olive plantations and vineyards, would have been perfect for producing large quantities of curd. Celtic settlers to the north were accomplished metalworkers and had been producing large volumes of cheese for years because of their herds of cows and vast quantities of milk. The Celts could have passed their knowledge onto the Romans, who were expanding ever further north.

Olive presses could have been used to press moisture out of large cheeses. Or, the Romans could have adopted a method from France that involves mixing salt into curd, breaking the curd up into small pieces so the salt can mix in fully, and then pressing the broken curds together into a complete wheel. Roads to France and trade happened at that time thanks to the ever-continuing expansion of the Empire.

Whatever the case, the Romans clearly had to invent (or adapt) new ways of making cheese that significantly differed from how they had made smaller, earlier cheeses.

So, we can thank cheese at least in part for the development of ancient technology and thank ancient people for pursuing the perfection of cheese production. Once again, cheese is a factor that unites us all.

Reference: Paul Kindstedt, Cheese and Culture, Chelsea Green Publishing, 2012

Gabrielle Roman

Gabrielle Roman is earning her Master's in Publishing and Writing at Emerson College in Boston. She is originally from Kansas City and misses the BBQ but the Thai food is good consolation. Her favorite hobby is cuddling with her puppy.