Frank Maixner, a microbiologist at the Eurac Research Institute in Bolzano, Italy, who was the lead author of the report, said he was surprised to learn salt miners more than two millennia ago were advanced enough to ‘use fermentation intentionally.’
The finding was the earliest evidence to date of cheese ripening in Europe, according to researchers.
‘It is becoming increasingly clear that not only were prehistoric culinary practices sophisticated, but also that complex processed foodstuffs as well as the technique of fermentation have held a prominent role in our early food history,’ said Kerstin Kowarik of the Museum of Natural History Vienna.
Researchers analyzed four samples: one dating back to the Bronze Age, two from the Iron Age and one from the 18th century.
One of them, about 2,700 years old, was found to contain two fungi, Penicillium roqueforti and Saccharomyces cerevisiae. Both are known today for their use in food making.
The samples were found in the heart of the Hallstatt mine, in the Austrian Alps, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, where salt has been produced for over 3,000 years.
It is thanks to the constant temperature of around 8C (46F) and the high concentration of salt at the mine that the miners’ feces were preserved particularly well.