The book tracks what we do know about cheese in history, from those Bronze-Age civilizations up through Classical times, the Middle Ages, industrialization, and the modern artisan cheese movement, and caps off with a quick look at current legal issues. (The ongoing tussle about cheese-name protection -- who can call their cheese "Roquefort", e.g. -- and the equally ongoing wrangle about raw-milk cheese in the US.)
Rather than try to analyze the book further, I'll just tell you what I learned, which will either enflame your interest further or save you from having to read the book at all.
- Pretty much every civilization invents cheese. It's what happens as soon as you have a surplus of milk and need to do something with it.
- However, inventing a storable, shippable, durable cheese is trickier. (Most of the author's speculation is about who started using coagulants such as rennet, and when.) (Anatolia, 1400-ish BC, looks like the earliest definite date.)
- "Transhumance" is an awfully impressive word for having separate winter and summer grazing fields for your herd.
- Cheese is an important food throughout European history. (Not so much in China, etc.) The author falls short of making it a crucial part of every stage of Western civilization, but he does turn up a lot of interesting relevancies.
- The great enemy of the cheese industry turns out to be the butter industry. You generally want to skim off some of the cream before you start making cheese, and then you sell that as butter. But butter is more profitable, so it is tempting to skim off more and more cream. Pretty soon all your profit is coming from butter, and your cheese is this nasty low-fat stuff which is boring when fresh and turns into a rock if you try to age it. Give up and feed the whey to your pigs.
- Unless you are a Dutch cheese genius and figure out how to make an interesting spiced skim-milk cheese that doesn't suck, and then you sell that. Holland had a lot of cheese geniuses in the late Middle Ages; this is when Gouda and Edam and so on got popular.
- Most importantly, "cheese" is a funny word, and the more you read it the funnier it gets. Particularly in a book like this which goes on about cheese factors and cheese innovators and cheese technology. The author tries to keep the tone serious by throwing in a "transhumance" now and then, but it's no good against the tidal wave of "cheese". Cheese cheese cheese.