December 13, 2012

Was the first ever cheese from Poland?

Modern oscypki cheese from Poland
(CC by Pawel Swiegoda)
While today it is maybe France the most famed cheese-making and cheese-eating region on Earth*, we knew very little about cheese-making origins... until now.

Melanie Salque et al., Earliest evidence for cheese making in the sixth millennium bc in northern Europe. Nature 2012. Pay per viewLINK [doi:10.1038/nature11698]

Abstract

The introduction of dairying was a critical step in early agriculture, with milk products being rapidly adopted as a major component of the diets of prehistoric farmers and pottery-using late hunter-gatherers1, 2, 3, 4, 5. The processing of milk, particularly the production of cheese, would have been a critical development because it not only allowed the preservation of milk products in a non-perishable and transportable form, but also it made milk a more digestible commodity for early prehistoric farmers6, 7, 8, 9, 10. The finding of abundant milk residues in pottery vessels from seventh millennium sites from north-western Anatolia provided the earliest evidence of milk processing, although the exact practice could not be explicitly defined1. Notably, the discovery of potsherds pierced with small holes appear at early Neolithic sites in temperate Europe in the sixth millennium bc and have been interpreted typologically as ‘cheese-strainers’10, although a direct association with milk processing has not yet been demonstrated. Organic residues preserved in pottery vessels have provided direct evidence for early milk use in the Neolithic period in the Near East and south-eastern Europe, north Africa, Denmark and the British Isles, based on the δ13C and Δ13C values of the major fatty acids in milk1, 2, 3, 4. Here we apply the same approach to investigate the function of sieves/strainer vessels, providing direct chemical evidence for their use in milk processing. The presence of abundant milk fat in these specialized vessels, comparable in form to modern cheese strainers11, provides compelling evidence for the vessels having being used to separate fat-rich milk curds from the lactose-containing whey. This new evidence emphasizes the importance of pottery vessels in processing dairy products, particularly in the manufacture of reduced-lactose milk products among lactose-intolerant prehistoric farming communities6, 7.

See also the related article by Niddhi Subamaran at Nature News and the one by Hanna Briggs at BBC News.

The dating for the cheese-making artifacts (holed pots used to press curdled milk, discarding the whey, which is a preliminary step in cheese making) is of similar age as the arrival of Neolithic itself and the first evidences of dairying in Europe and Africa. So I guess that we can conclude that farming arrived to Europe, at least to Central and Northern Europe, together with cattle herding, dairying and cheese-making.

While the potsherds are known to exist elsewhere in Central Europe, the ones analyzed for this paper are specifically from Cuyavia, Poland, which used to be the most Northeastern offshoot of the Danubian Neolithic.

Cuajada or mamia
(GFDL+CC-BY-SA-2.5)
Just one weak caveat. While Richard Evershed (in the BBC article) asks rhetorically what other milk product could it be? This question is not as trivial as it may look on first sight because there is indeed another such milk product: the cuajada (Spanish name) or mamia (Basque name) which is nothing else but the preliminary product of cheese making (curdled milk) and a much coveted delicatessen when properly made.

But, well, I guess it can be considered a form of cheese... more or less. Also real fully-processed cheese achieves a further purpose: to preserve milk (or rather key parts of it) for delayed consumption and easier transport.

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* Actually Greeks eat quite more cheese per capita than the French, but they are the only ones. 

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