Researchers may have discovered a jar of the world’s oldest cheese in the tomb of an ancient Egyptian mayor, but – frustratingly for turophiles – the taste of the bacteria-laced sample is likely to remain a mystery.
The discovery, announced in the American Chemical Society’s Analytical Chemistry journal this week, came after researchers tested the whitish contents of the jar found in the tomb of Ptahmes, a mayor of 13th century BC Memphis, an important capital in ancient southern Egypt.
"This is the oldest solid cheese ever found," Enrico Greco, a scientist with the department of Chemical Sciences at the University of Catania who coauthored the report, told The Telegraph.
Remains of cheese-like products older than the jar’s contents had previously discovered in Poland, China, and Egypt, but a scientist who took part in the discovery says they were the products of natural fermentation so were more like yogurt than cheese.
Older samples discovered elsewhere were "more attributable to natural fermented milk like yogurt or kefir. In our case we didn’t find any biomolecular traces of proteins resulting from natural fermentation of milk," Mr Greco said.
The jar had been covered in a canvas to preserve the cheese.
The scientists investigated its contents using liquid chromatography and mass spectrometry, the American Chemical Society said.
The tests showed the cheese had been made from a mixture of cow and sheep, or goat, milk. They also revealed that the sample was laced with Bricella melitensis, which can be deadly to humans.
But the cheese’s taste is a mystery.
Archaeofood | World's oldest food
"We do not have much information on what the taste could be, we know it was made mostly from sheep’s and goat’s milk," Mr Greco said.
"But for me it’s really hard to imagine a specific flavour. I’m Italian, I love cheese and I know how much they can change in flavour and appearance even with very few differences in ingredients and process.
"It is these small variations and the specificities in the regional processes that have allowed the development of so many varieties in my country."