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Cheese first made in Neolithic times

Scientists analyze milk residue on 7,500-year-old shards of pottery sieves

Associated PressDecember 23, 2012 

Polnad First Cheese Evidence

Street vendors in Zakopane, Poland, sell "oscypek" -- a smoked cheese. Neolithic pottery shards found in Poland point to cheese-making perhaps 7,500 years ago.(2006 AP File Photo)

CZAREK SOKOLOWSKI — 2006 AP FILE PHOTO

Little Miss Muffet could have been separating her curds and whey 7,500 years ago, according to a new study that finds the earliest solid evidence of cheese-making.

Scientists performed a chemical analysis on fragments from 34 pottery sieves discovered in Poland to determine their purpose. Until now, experts weren’t sure whether such sieves were used to make cheese, beer or honey.

Though there is no definitive test for cheese, Richard Evershed at Britain’s University of Bristol and his colleagues found large amounts of fatty milk residue on the pottery shards compared with cooking or storage pots from the same sites. That suggests the sieves were specifically used to separate fat-rich curds from liquid whey in soured milk in a crude cheese-making process.

“It’s a very compelling forensic argument that this was connected to cheese,” Evershed said. “There aren’t many other dairy processes where you would need to strain,” he said. The study was published online this month by the journal Nature.

“This is the smoking gun,” said Paul Kindstedt, a professor of nutrition and food sciences at the University of Vermont and author of “Cheese and Culture.” He was not involved in the study.

“It’s almost inconceivable that the milk fat residues in the sieves were from anything else but cheese,” Kindstedt said, adding that many experts suspected cheese was being made in Turkey up to 2,000 years earlier than this latest finding in Poland but that there was no definitive proof.

Kindstedt said the earliest cheeses were likely similar to spreadable cheeses like ricotta. He guessed that people either ate them soon after they were made or buried them in pots for months afterward, saving them for the winter when food was scarce.

Cheeses also served to spice up the Neolithic diet. “Food was incredibly dull and monotonous,” Kindstedt said, noting the prehistoric farmers’ dependence on grain porridge.

After being buried in the ground for months, he said, the cheeses would have been nonperishable, “bomb-proof” and pretty pungent.

“They probably would not be the first choice for a lot of people today,” Kindstedt said. “But I would still love to try it.”

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