Amid history and legends

Nobody knows for sure when or how human beings discovered the process of cheesemaking. There is, though, a legend about a wandering shepherd, a dromedary and the African desert…

The legend has it that in the African desert…many, many millennia ago, a wandering shepherd from Mesopotamia had to cross the Sahara and had taken with him a sack made from the stomach of a lamb to carry any surplus of the just-milked milk.

He walked and walked…the heat and the enzymes in the sack caused the milk to acidify, and the shambling movement of the dromedary caused some of the whey to leak out of the badly sewn sack. And so, during the journey, every time the wandering shepherd went to drink a little milk…he found himself eating “cheese”.

He was the world’s first cheesemaker!

History of cheese and of formài

It is certain that the farming of sheep, goats and, to a lesser extent, cattle was already under way in the area occupied by modern-day Turkey, Syria and Iraq in 8000 B.C. It is from that period that we have the first evidence of the manipulation of milk (deduced from the residual fats of milk discovered in vessels). Initially, the shepherds expected milk to acidify naturally, but then – probably due to a random occurrence – they realised it was possible to “induce acidification” with vegetable rennet (cardoon, cabbage, garlic, lemon, vinegar) and they subsequently succeeded in extracting animal rennet made with the fourth stomach of unweaned calves, sheep and goats.
What is the world’s “oldest” cheese? It was thought that the samples found thanks to the molecular analysis of food residues deposited on crockery in the Neolithic village of Takarkori, in Libya, dating from around 5200 B.C., could have claimed the title. The recent discovery, though, at a 6th-millennium B.C. site in Poland of residues of tallow in containers of perforated pottery (similar to cheese mould still in use to this day in certain cultures) dating from 5500 B.C. has made it possible to attribute a dairy function to these objects and, therefore, to backdate the birth of the first European cheese.

History, cheeses, pasture

Neolithic

6000-3400 B.C.

Initial forms of processing milk at the beginning of the period, start of transhumance in non-systematic forms. Towards the end of the period, hard and semi-hard cheeses.

Iron Age

900-400 B.C.

Extensive deforestation, major development of alpine pasture, further development of cheese-making techniques, which take on characteristics very similar to those of today’s artisanal methods.

High Medieval period

476-1000 A.D.

Further reduction of the exploitation of the pasture, transhumance short and rarely mid-range in the context of the courtly economy (across lands controlled by the same owner).

Modern Age

1492-1789 A.D.

Reduction of the importance of the production of milk from sheep and goats, and increase in cattle farming due to the possibility of wintering on the plains. Increase in the trade of mountain cheese and of harvest-time (late summer, early autumn) fairs of cheeses and livestock.

Cheese-making in Bergamo, from the plains to the mountains (to the present day)

Whereas on the lower plains, the herdsmen carried out small-scale production of stracchino soft cheeses (“quadri”, “tondi”, “salva”, etc.) using tried-and-tested methods, over the course of the 19th century the mountainsides saw the refining of those production methods that have made a long-lasting impression on what we can still today call the Bergamo cheese-making tradition. In the early 20th century, the establishment of cheesemaking companies on the plain was geared towards products that would not compete with the traditional specialities (which could leverage an established network of wholesalers and seasoners), the new companies preferring instead to try to imitate the output of other areas and of Swiss producers.
Bortolo Belotti – who in the 1930s wrote the most important work on the history of cheesemaking in Bergamo – could thus observe that, despite the development of cheesemaking on the plain, the image of the typical cheesemaker remained very much associated with the idea of the producers up on the mountain pastures.

The transhumance of the herdsmen, a civilisation of farmers and dairymen with a profound legacy

The evolution of the livestock-rearing and dairy-production economy in Bergamo, which had already seen an increase in the importance of cattle raising (evinced by the presence of herdsmen with numerous “fat beasts” wintering on the level ground), was then subject to an acceleration in the 15th century in parallel with the agrarian transformations of the low-lying plains of the provinces of Lodi and Pavia. Here, thanks to the early development of irrigation, the monotonous growing of crops was substituted with agrarian rotations in which the cultivation of forage had a large part to play. Irrigation made it possible to carry out up to four hay cuts and to make large stocks of hay available in the barns. This was a godsend for Bergamo’s herdsmen, who were in charge of the herds of sheep, goats and dairy cows that had been coming down to the lowlands for at least two or three centuries. Thanks to the abundance of hay, they were transformed into specialise breeders with large herds of cattle that, gradually, became increasingly less depending on grazing. This left other herdsmen to continue as wandering shepherds, concentrating on the uncultivated residue – a practice that remains active right up to the present day.