The World’s Oldest Cheese Found on a 3,600 Year Old Mummy



Apparently the world has had a love for cheese for far longer than we originally thought.

Archaeologists in China have recently discovered the oldest surviving cheese specimen in history. It has been found underneath the Taklaman Desert and is thought to be have been buried roughly 3,600 years ago. Interestingly, it was attached to the necks and chests of mummies. Hey, even the dead need delicious snacks. The afterlife makes you work up an appetite.

Despite the discovery, this isn’t the first time that the Chinese mummies have been found. They were originally unearthed in 1934 by a Swedish archaeologist who was investigating a 17th century cemetery that had been built on top of the original site. Despite the momentous discovery, it was quickly forgotten, because apparently three-thousand year old mummies were totally commonplace at the time.

It wasn’t until the early 21st century that the burial site was re-discovered by a Chinese expedition that had the added help of GPS. Archaeologists subsequently discovered over 200 mummies who were entombed fully clothed in what appears to be upside down boats. There were also thirteen foot poles included in the graves which are considered to be of phallic significance, because yay penises.

As previously mentioned, there were chunks of yellow cheese attached to the mummies which measured roughly 0.4 to 0.8 inches in diameter. Amazingly, neither the delicious dairy products nor the mummies themselves decayed. This is because of the dry air in the region and the salty soil that they were buried in. Similar to the early Egyptian mummies that were simply buried in the desert, the conditions prevented bacteria from breaking the bodies (and in this case, cheese) down. It’s just too dry.

The discovery of the cheese has proven that the people who made it had knowledge of basic fermenting practices. The Journal of Archaeological Science has even stated:

“We not only identified the product as the earliest known cheese, but we also have direct … evidence of ancient technology,” study author Andrej Shevchenko, an analytical chemist at Germany’s Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics, commented. “[The method was] easy, cheap … It’s a technology for the common people.”

A chemical analysis of the dairy product has revealed that microbes such as Lactobacillus and Saccharomycetaceae yeasts were used to make it. We still use these microbes today to make the popular fermented beverage kefir. Researchers also believe that the cheese was designed for immediate consumption and contained probiotic benefits. Apparently they didn’t need to take Inner Health Plus.

Despite the impressive age of the Chinese cheese, some archaeologists have found potential evidence of the product that date back further. Fragments of possible cheese-making strainers have been discovered in Poland and are thought to be 7,000 years old. There are also Danish pots from 5,000 years ago that may have held butter or cheese. Despite this, researchers can’t absolutely prove that these devices were used for cheese, so for now we’ll have to be content with 3,600.

Thanksgiving Special: Get Stuffed

StuffingI’ve heard some argue that when stuffing (also known as dressing, although that is a hotly debated topic) is done right it can be the highlight of a Thanksgiving meal. With so many delicious food options, this may be a somewhat controversial viewpoint. What can’t be denied though is that humans have thought that stuffing was a damn good idea long before the first Thanksgiving or the discovery of the New World.

The exact origin of stuffing can’t be exactly pinpointed. However, I would imagine that the practice has occurred ever since people have been ripping the entrails out of carcasses. Many seem to have forgotten that stuffing is supposed to be on the inside of an animal, not in a baking dish next to it. The first written record of stuffing fares from the Roman Empire in a cookbook titled De Re Coquinaria. It contained recipes for a variety of stuffed animals; including hares, pigs and chickens. For the most part the stuffing consisted of a variety of vegetables, spices, nuts and herbs, as well as spelt and organ meat. It of course wasn’t called ‘stuffing’ at the time, in fact that word didn’t appear in print until about 1538. Prior to this, it was mostly referred to as farce which came from the Latin farcire which meant ‘to stuff.’ By the Victorian era, the word ‘stuffing’ became a little too crass for 19th century sensibilities and was thusly referred to as dressinginstead, which we of course know is still used today interchangeably.

It can’t be known exactly when stuffing became popular in America, however, written evidence shows that it was a Thanksgiving staple by at least 1836. It’s more than likely that it has been utilised far earlier though, after all, there was already a long historical tradition of the practice. Also, you gotta stuff a bird with something. What we do know for sure is that different parts of the nation adapted the dish early on in order to incorporate local flavours. For example, in the Boston area oyster based stuffings are incredibly popular. One of the earliest printed recipes is from the 1832 Cook’s Own Book which instructed “Fill your chickens with young oysters cut small, truffles, parsley and spices, and roast them.” Comparatively, New England stuffing at the time tended to incorporate chestnuts, and often continues to today. In the South, cornbread based stuffing is the way to go, although they tend to refer to it as the aforementioned dressing.

There’s no evidence to show exactly when stuffing left the animal cavities and became a side dish onto itself. However, it could be argued that it at least became widespread during the early 1970s. This was due to the the release of Ruth Siems’ Stovetop Stuffing in 1972 by General Foods, which is now known as Kraft Foods. It was quick, convenient and tasty, and therefore was an instant hit. Today, over sixty millions boxes are sold every year at Thanksgiving time. As an Australian, I still don’t quite understand the idea of a roasting pan full of stuffing. As a historian, I think I’m obliged to examine the matter by making a huge batch for this years Friendsgiving I’m attending. All in the name of research, of course.

Thanksgiving Special: A Shortcrust History of Pumpkin Pie

If you’re in the USA you’re undoubtedly getting ready for one of the biggest feast days of the year – Thanksgiving. Perhaps your thoughts are already being filled by the delicious delicacies that you’ll be treating yourself to. Turkey, stuffing, mac n’ cheese, green bean casserole and of course – pumpkin pie. It may surprise you discover that this Fall dessert, whilst delectable, wasn’t found on the tables at the first Thanksgiving. Nor did it originate in the New World. In fact, it’s far more of a modern day staple for Turkey Day.

Evidence suggests that pumpkins originated in South America over seven thousand years ago and overtime also became native to New England. It’s believed that Native Americans traditionally prepared pumpkins by cooking them in slices over the hot coals of their fires. The vegetables began being exported to England and France during the Tudor period and the versatility of them were quickly recognised, including using them as a filler.

Pumpkin pies as we know them today were developed in the mid seventeenth century in France. Renowned chef Francois Pierre la Varenne created a recipe for a pompion torte - a pastry crust with a sweet pumpkin filling. Similar recipes began appearing in English cook books by 1675, one of the most notable being Hannah Woolley’s The Gentlewoman’s Companion. Meanwhile, it took 150 years for Varenne’s creation to begin appearing in American cookbooks, and it was only then that the pies began become a common item at the Thanksgiving table.

However, despite this beloved pie not being present at the first Thanksgiving in 1621, the vegetable itself certainly was. Pilgrims had brought pumpkin recipes with them on the Mayflower that were sweeter than that of the the Native Americans. In fact, they served a kind of pudding at the iconic dinner which involve hollowing out a pumpkin and filling it with milk, honey and spices. It was then baked in hot ashes.

Regardless of the pie’s origin, it continues to be a staple at American Thanksgiving dinner tables today, as well as a symbol of the Fall season in general. With that it mind, you should probably go and have a slice.