Prehistoric cheese and the question of transport

Started by awpo, March 01, 2023, 10:24:01 AM

Previous topic - Next topic


Hello! I am studying for a PhD in archaeology and currently pondering the question of the distances likely to be involved in prehistoric transhumance. One question concerns transport: even if a household had only a few milk-cows and/or sheep, they would still have been able to make a considerable volume of cheese over the summer months. Initially, I assume these were soft cheeses with a high water content, which would have weighed a lot. So, both in order to preserve them and in order to transport as much as possible back home for the winter, they would have had to press/salt/smoke them. OK so far?

So my main question is: what order of weight reduction can be achieved by pressing/salting/smoking a soft cheese? I'm guessing about 50%, but I'd be very grateful for some authoritative figures and for any other thoughts you may wish to offer! Thanks in advance.


Not even close to an expert, but I do know that higher moisture content cheeses don't last as long as drier cheeses.

Pure speculation but I think the decision to age or consume would be decided during the making of the cheese, rather than making soft cheeses and then trying to affect changes on them post make.

For example, smaller curd cut and a cooking of the curd will expel a lot of moisture (whey) from the curd, resulting in a drier curd that's pressed immediately. Salting obviously helps with that, too.


There are nomadic people who make cheese even now.  I would spend some time looking at what they are doing.  A pretty common technique is to slaughter lamb right after it has drunk milk from it's mother.  You then carry the stomach all day with you and in the evening, put the stomach in the fire and cut it open to give you cheese.

In terms of aging cheese, in many climates it's absolutely no problem.  An extreme example is Chhurpi or Durkha.  You don't really need much equipment to make it and it can last for *years*.  I don't know what kind of technology we're talking about here, but if you are at the point of pottery, there are some traditional cured cheeses in the middle east that are made in clay pots which are then buried. Another place to look for low technology cheese making is Mongolian traditional cheese made from mare's milk.  A lot of that tradition is built on nomadic living and the idea of really being inseparable from the horse that was transporting you.  Pre-greek history, the idea of draining cheeses in baskets was already well established as well.  Homer writes of it being a technology stolen from the cyclops.

My somewhat uneducated opinion is that it's very likely that the "carry the milk in the stomach of a lamb" trick led *very* quickly to rennet based cheeses and I would venture to say that virtually all early cheeses were rennet based.  It doesn't take much experimentation to figure out that you just need to cut out bits of the fourth stomach and add it to some milk that's been sitting in the sun for a few hours to make pretty awesome curds.  They will be wondering why the milk in a lamb's stomach forms solid curds, while milk in a hide bag just makes yogurt.  Then it's just an exhaustive search of what body part is making the magical cheese.  From there, draining it in a reed basket is trivial.  Roman documents show that hard cheeses were aged in the shade and I've got to imagine that this piece of knowledge is as old as agriculture.

I'm kind of rambling here, but the key thing to realise is that the moisture level of rennet cheeses is determined almost solely by how early and how small you "cut" the curds after the form.  So any impatient person who pours the forming cheese out of their hide bag into their reed basket a bit early will find that they get a dry cheese that ages well.  The other important thing is that curds knit with absolutely no effort *at all* at a high pH.  So this theoretical impatient person will not only get a dry cheese, but also a cheese that forms into a very nice compact cheese.  From my perspective, I'd be shocked if it even took a single generation to go from draining cheese in reed baskets to aging them for as long as they want.  Find a low humidity place to dry the cheeses and you can make something that will shatter your teeth if you want to.


awpo, you first need to understand that as Mike says, the ultimate moisture content, and therefore how long you can age the cheese, is determined very early in the make.... How long you allow the curds to form, and how small you cut them, are the key to how much moisture they lose.... No amount of pressing of a soft cheese can realistically turn it into a dry, hard cheese that will age well.... My suggestion to you is to read Mike's post several times, there is a hug amount of knowledge and intuition there to absorb....  ;)

Cheesemaking has rekindled our love of spending time together, Diane and me!


Well, the alpine cheeses have a long history of transhumance that I think would give you some guidance on one possible way of doing things.  They cook out a lot of moisture but make a single very large wheel at a time, transported by animal back down the mountain.,diet%20of%20natural%20meadow%20grasses.

I suppose you are looking at if the whole community has traveled with the herds? No permanent living locations?  Is the community completely nomadic?

I think your initial question shouldn't be how much weight is reduced after the make, but how much it's reduced during the make as Mike mentioned.  In general, a gallon of milk makes 2 pounds of fresh cheese, and 1 pound of cooked/drier cheese.  Aging would further reduce the weight as the cheese dries, but would require a cheese cave or location to store the cheese during aging, and someone to attend the cheese every day.

Having access to salt would also be a requirement.


Interestingly, there was  a person on reddit making all their cheeses without salt due because they suffered from kidney disease.  They made lots of different kinds of cheese with no salt and never had any trouble aging them.  I was super skeptical when they first started, but they had some really impressive cheeses.


Not related to this topic, but which reddit subcommunity is the cheese one? I searched on it and was not successful in finding it?

If you prefer to Message me, rather than post, please do so.




Fabulous - thank you all for sharing your knowledge. That's given me a lot to think about.