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Cheese IQ: Round and Round

“Art is is own excuse, and it’s either art or it’s something else,” said novelist Charles Bukowski. “It’s either a poem or a piece of cheese.”

If you’ve ever been captivated by the unique textures and topography of a cheese plate, this isn’t such a goofy notion. Cheese, in all its permutations, can be admired (and enjoyed) as art. In exploring the gallery of cheese throughout history, however, there’s a standout, omnipresent shape made by artisans, revered by consumers: the wheel.

Molding Ancient Cheeses

Early cheesemakers didn’t take stellar notes, but it’s fairly clear that the world’s first cheeses reflected the round ceramic vessels they were created in. Princeton University archaeologist Peter Bogucki suggests Neolithic cheesemakers stored milk in pottery, pointing to remnants of sieved ceramics in southwest Asia stretching back to 7,000 B.C.E. Milk coagulated quickly in these warmer climates, forming clumps of fresh curds floating in whey—the first cheese. In recent years, Bogucki partnered with University of Bristol geochemist Richard Evershed to analyze early cheese formats farther north, demonstrating the nomadic spread of small-format, round cheeses. Their 2012 study published in the scientific journal Nature reveals biochemical traces of milk fat residues in the pores of Polish pottery dating back 7,200 years ago.

Food scientist Michael Tunick offers additional insight as to why most early cheeses were round. In The Science of Cheese, Tunick reports that rectangular cheeses are problematic from a scientific standpoint, as microbes can ripen the cheese from four angles at each corner, causing rapid breakdown of the internal paste and inevitable spoilage. This effect is most noticeable in high-moisture cheeses—like those made by Neolithic communities in unforgiving hot climates.

As time passed and cheesemaking became more refined, humans learned how to coagulate milk with lactic acid bacteria and heat, and later, rennet. The first definitive historical records of rennet coagulation were made in the Bronze Age. Scientist and professor Paul Kindstedt—whose research and pioneering book Cheese and Culture: A History of Cheese and Its Place in Western Culture helped inspire and inform this exploration of round cheeses—surmises that rennet usage produced round, slightly harder cheeses with natural rinds dried by heat but balanced by the presence of humidity, the result of migration and climate change. These cheeses had longer aging potential.

Getting Bigger

The years stretching from the Bronze and Iron Ages through the Roman Empire saw the rise of maritime and trade powers. Cheeses needed to be rugged and low in moisture to withstand long journeys from dairy to plate. “From a technology standpoint, a cylinder or a circular configuration is generally good for any cheese that is going to be aged, stored, or transported for any kind of long period because it has few creases, no corners,” Kindstedt explains. Sicily in particular, influenced by the Greeks, became a skilled producer of pecorinos and caprinos that had ample surface area to allow for evaporation. These cheeses were uncooked, lightly pressed, and dependent on humidity and temperature control during aging.

The Romans also had contributions when it came to longer-aged styles. Most notably, Kindstedt asserts, they used circular bronze containers as vats, allowing experimentation with high-temperature cheesemaking. Romans also developed the concept of pressing newly formed wheels of cheese by using olive presses to extract more whey from cheeses, giving rise to cooked-pressed varieties.

Strides in the Middle Ages

As people settled at higher elevations, the sturdier and more indestructible cheese became. In Central Europe during the Middle Ages, shepherds combined their herds and led them to higher pastures, a migration pattern known today as transhumance. The resulting cheeses are Alpine styles: Large-format wheels with ample surface area made in vats over open flame and pressed while bound in wooden hoops.

Around this time, cheesemakers also began to mix salt and curd before pressing to evenly distribute the salt through the paste, eliminate internal rotting, and extract moisture. Salting paved the way for hefty, cylindrical shapes—think Parmigiano Reggiano—that surpassed the height of Alpine styles. These taller cheeses were more versatile and compact for aging and transporting.

Author J. L. Goldsmith writes about Cantal peasants in the Middle Ages, who milled curd by breaking it up and salting it before the final pressing. The English adapted this milling technique, giving way to cheddar, Gloucester, and Cheshire styles. More efficient cheese presses were developed in Cheshire during the 18th century to improve whey expulsion. Together with uniform salt distribution, the presses enabled truckles,
or hulking drum formats bound by cloth.

Modern Dimensions

The farmhouse truckles of England were adapted in America and diminished under war policies that dictated factory production. During the peak of American standardization, curd was drained into custom hoops made on assembly lines to specific dimensions. The Daisy-size cheddar—measuring 6 inches in height, 14 inches in diameter, and weighing roughly 22.5 pounds—is the most memorable hoop mold from that era.

Generations later, in the 1970s, Ig Vella of Vella Cheese Company wished to make Daisy-size rounds but needed to comply with regulator concerns over splitting them prior to distribution. Instead, Vella looked to the “California Daisy,” a cheddar half the size of the original that could move through the supply chain intact. Similarly, Uplands Cheese Company’s Andy Hatch, producer of the award-winning Alpine-style Pleasant Ridge Reserve, modeled his cheese after mammoth Old World styles such as Beaufort and Gruyère but adapted their shapes to American taste and terroir. “We chose a smaller wheel because it’s easier for us to handle here and easier for the retailer to handle on the counter,” he says.

So, while modern makers mine the past for artful, time-honored traditions to inform their production methods, they continue to reinvent the wheel.

Tess McNamara

Tess McNamara is the director of retail and operations at Lucy's Whey Carnegie Hill in Manhattan. She traces her love for cheese to northern Italy, where she worked as a cave apprentice.