Facts That Figure: Cheese

Facts That Figure: Cheese

By: C.G. Hoffman

Ever heard the expression “The moon is made of green cheese?” No one actually believed that. It was an expression to describe an extremely gullible person who could be fooled into believing anything, even that the moon was made of green cheese.

No one knows who was the first genius who figured out how to make cheese. Perhaps some long ago nomad crossed the desert and thought it was a good idea to store some milk in a cow’s stomach pouch… You see, cheese is made with rennet, a byproduct produced by enzymes in the lining of a cow’s stomach. Most kosher varieties of cheese today use a vegetarian version of rennet, most often derived from mushrooms.

Milk producing cows must be milked every day. All that milk would go bad if there wasn’t a way to preserve it. Cheese was an excellent way to preserve milk, and was a superb source of protein in ancient diets.

The Romans elevated cheesemaking into an art. They enjoyed many varieties of cheese, from a soft cottage-cheese like cheese, which was a staple food, to the original version of Pecorino Romano, still popular today. Sheep’s milk was most commonly used for cheesemaking. Roman legionaries were allotted 1 oz. Of cheese per day. With 5000 soldiers in a full legion, that’s 140 kilos of cheese per day.

Cheese was an important part of the Medieval diet. Most peasants couldn’t afford meat on a daily basis, and cheese was an easily accessible source of protein. Cheeses were sometimes aged for more than 6 months, often in caves which provided the perfect blend of cool temperatures and the right humidity. Cheddar cheese, one of the most popular cheeses today (right after mozzarella) is so named for the Cheddar region in England, whose naturally formed caves were used for aging their eponymous cheeses.

From the 14th until the 18th century, Edam cheese was the most popular cheese in the world, and for good reason. It doesn’t go bad, only gets harder with age, thus making it the perfect food to take along on sea voyages or long trips. It originated in the town of Edam, in the Netherlands, where it was pressed in special wooden cheese forms. These forms also moonlighted as helmets during riots, giving Dutchmen the nickname “cheeseheads!”

America is truly the greatest country in the world. Why, we even have a cheese named after us! Only, American cheese, that good old rubbery square that melts into perfect gooeyness, was actually invented in Switzerland! Two Swiss chemists were trying to produce a cheese that had a long shelf life, and they hit the jackpot with a cheese that’s almost, if not 100% immortal, then quite close. The process of slicing and packaging it was perfected by the Kraft company in 1913. The cheese became a standby cheese that was shipped to American soldiers fighting abroad, and it survived trenches and live fire to become the beloved American classic: American cheese. Americans soon turned their noses up at it since it was used within the welfare system, and it was soon derisively called “Government cheese.” It fell largely out of favor as imported, gourmet cheese from Europe became more accessible, and Americans learned what “real cheese” is supposed to taste like.

There are more than 2,000 varieties of cheese today. America produces 4,275 tons of cheese per year. The French consume the most cheese, closely followed by the Italians.

To many of us, it’s baffling why anyone would want to eat cheese with mold in it. But blue cheeses are enjoyed by gourmands worldwide, and are now available in Cholov Yisroel. The award for the stinkiest cheese goes to a French cheese called Epoisse de Bourgogne. It reportedly smells so bad, it is not allowed onto public transportation in France!

Wisconsin is the cheese capital of the USA. They even won the Guinness World Record for the world’s largest block of cheese, made in 1964. The mammoth cheese used milk from 16,000 cows, took 25 people to produce, and weighed in at a gargantuan 34,591 pounds. Not to be outdone, two Wisconsin brothers produced the world’s biggest grilled cheese sandwich. It weighed 418 pounds and was 6 ft by 11 ft. That’s one big snack!

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