Grab a baguette and a little wine, and sink your teeth into the latest ancient culinary discovery, the world’s oldest solid cheese.
The cheese was recently discovered inside a broken vessel inside the tomb of Ptahmes, the mayor of the ancient Egyptian city of Memphis during the XIX Dynasty, dating back more than 3,200 years ago. Archeologists first uncovered the tomb in 1885, but it sat undisturbed for the next 130 years. Then — between 2013 and 2014 — archeologists from Cairo University were digging through the tomb and found the dairy-filled vessel.
The "cheese" is actually a solid white mass, and tests revealed it was a mixture of sheep or goat and cow's milk. But the milk solids weren't the only things lurking inside the jar. Brucella melitensis, a type of bacteria that can cause infectious diseases, infested the solid mass.
But how could cheese survive for thousands of years without completely deteriorating? According to the study, the cheese was preserved through "the interactions for thousands of years with the strong alkaline environment of the incorporating soil rich in sodium carbonate and the desertic conditions did not prevent the identification of specific peptide markers which showed high stability under these stressing conditions."
Even soft cheese can survive thousands of years
Surprisingly, this isn't the only "mummified" cheese out there. In 2014, cheese was found around the heads and necks of Chinese mummies that date back as early as 1615 BC. Chemical analysis revealed this cheese was likely not solid when it was made thousands of years ago but more like a kefir.
But how does a cheese that was as soft as yogurt last this long?
The people from the Bronze Age who buried the mummies interred “their kin underneath what looks like large wooden boats. The boats were wrapped so snugly with cowhide that it's as if they'd been "vacuum-packed.”
Andrej Shevchenko, an analytical chemist from Germany, who helped to analyze what was found on the mummies and confirmed it was cheese, said it isn’t known exactly why they were buried with cheese. Perhaps it was food for the afterlife. (If I got to choose which foods I wanted in the afterlife, cheese would definitely be among them.)
This cheese, like the ancient wine found or the 3,000-year-old butter recently discovered, isn’t actually edible anymore. But, it does provide some evidence of the cheese making process of the ancient people. It’s believed that this cheese was made by mixing dairy with a kefir starter (a mix of bacteria and yeast) as opposed to a rennet starter (a substance from animal guts).
While these two cheeses may be entirely different, one thing is for sure. Ancient civilizations liked to bury the dead with dairy.
Editor's note: This article has been updated since it was originally published in February 2014.