BRONWEN PERCIVAL offers an insight from the specialty cheese industry in Issue 2 of 25 Magazine
Like coffee, cheese is a fermented food. But unlike coffee producers, the cheese industry has largely relied on commercial starter cultures – strains of bacteria with defined properties – to drive its fermentations for over a century.
Most cheesemakers regard milk as a blank canvas, a clean and consistent raw material that they, in the role of the artist, can transform into any cheese imaginable. In this view of the world, the artist’s palette is a range of starter and ripening cultures, isolated strains of bacteria and fungi sold in a purified form by a handful of biotechnology companies. In addition to efficient acidification, strains are selected to deliver flavors ranging from buttery and caramelized to fruity and sweet. The easiest way to differentiate one’s product within a crowded shop counter is by delivering a big, bold flavor, and starter cultures are optimized to deliver direct, punchy flavors. One cheesemonger recently described a new cheese in her counter as “big and bold, with an adjunct culture giving it crystals and that signature Lactobacillus helveticus toasted pineapple note.”
Milk destined for producing commodity cheeses is a universal raw material, optimized for cheapness and consistency. Dairy farmers are trained to produce milk with as few bacteria in it as possible. To achieve this, chemical teat dips are applied before and after milking to kill any microbes that might be present, and premiums are paid for low bacterial counts in the milk. As a result, most liquid milk produced today is “dead”, lacking any sort of microbial activity or souring potential, even before it is pasteurized. Once the milk arrives at the factory and is heat-treated and standardized, commercial cultures are used to add back exactly what is needed to make any given type of cheese.
The specialty cheese market is growing, but it is easier to communicate “toasted pineapple” than the subtle, complex flavors of good farming. From the cheesemaker’s perspective, cynical decisions are more rational, and meanwhile customers pay over the odds for small-production cheeses that – at least as far as flavor is concerned – could just as easily have been produced from commodity inputs.
In a world where flavor comes from a packet, anybody, working at any scale, can make a cheese that tastes of toasted pineapples (or their equivalents). Many small farms turn to cheesemaking to add value to their milk, but without the factories’ economies of scale – and because in many cases they are farming more extensively – their products will always be more expensive than those of large factories. If cheesemaking is simply painting a canvas, inevitably farmhouse cheesemakers are left selling an expensive story.
Building a house
Small farmers are beginning to grapple with this quandary: they may not be able to compete on price, but they can do something that factories cannot. Careful farming can produce milk with healthy microbial biodiversity sufficient for making any type of cheese, just as it did before the advent of commercial starters and the intensification of dairy farming. Indeed, barely more than a century ago, all cheeses relied on the native microbes in the raw milk and the farming environment to sour and ripen. With this approach, the metaphor changes: rather than painting a canvas, we are building a house. The first – and arguably the most important – step of cheesemaking becomes the farming, and the role of the cheesemaker is simply to build a house for the microbes – i.e., the curd – whose physicochemical properties selectively encourage the growth of the members of the native microbial community that go on to lend their own unique flavors to the finished cheese. Each farm – the summation of its climate, soils, and farming practices — provides a different selective environment, and hosts its own characteristic community of microbes with their own specific arrays of enzymes and resulting flavor potential.
What do cheeses made exclusively from native (as opposed to commercially propagated) microbes taste like? Chances are you may have encountered them already: cheeses such as Parmigiano-Reggiano, Swiss L’Etivaz and Gruyère, Beaufort, and many lactic French goats’ cheeses mandate the use of so-called continuous whey starters, which are akin to the use of natural sourdough starters for making bread. Similar techniques once existed for other classic cheeses, from Cheddar to Gouda.
If anything, if the cheese itself is well-made (with the right pH and moisture level to create an appropriate selective environment), the flavor of native microbes is more subtle and multidimensional than the flashy, obvious flavors imparted by commercial cultures. These diverse communities are less efficient – they carry out their fermentation and ripening more slowly – but the many different strains working side-by-side give a more complex, longer flavor. A study carried out in 1996 compared the aromatic richness and intensity, and the flavor persistence of three different farms’ Comté cheeses made with both commercial and continuous whey starters. Without exception, the cheeses made using the native microbial communities were graded as more flavorsome and complex by sensory panels in a blind tasting.
Building a Conversation
Now more than ever, small farmers are recognizing that their long-term viability depends on opting out of producing commodities. But the alternative is not easy. The producers who operate with the most integrity – those who farm the most admirably, who promote biodiversity at the expense of yield, and who are using labor-intensive methods to make cheeses that taste fundamentally different – are still not rewarded sufficiently to justify the added expense and risk involved. The specialty cheese market is growing, but it is easier to communicate “toasted pineapple” than the subtle, complex flavors of good farming. From the cheesemaker’s perspective, cynical decisions are more rational, and meanwhile customers pay over the odds for small-production cheeses that – at least as far as flavor is concerned – could just as easily have been produced from commodity inputs.
Most customers who come into a shop for a piece of cheese don’t need or want a lecture on the homogenization of flavor on the side. How do we instigate a conversation within the industry, and with consumers, about what flavor means, without lapsing into preaching or granularity? Or, perhaps more realistically, how do we change the environment to lower the barriers to that conversation happening naturally?
First, farmhouse cheesemakers need to actively move away from the factory aesthetic. Paper-white, monoculture rinds and syrupy-sweet flavors are easy to achieve and easy for a naïve consumer to understand, but they undermine the integrity of farmhouse production. Farmhouse cheeses must wear their identity on their sleeve: not by being technically faulty or out of control, but by being more different, by doing the things that are impossible to achieve on a factory scale with a designer adjunct culture. A clear difference is easier to draw attention to and talk about than a subtle one.
Second, as US chef Dan Barber reminds us, if we want our customers to make better choices, we must be “merchants of pleasure, not armies of virtue”. Cheese that allows us to taste the biodiversity of a small farm is exciting and delicious. Those rare and unique flavors are reason enough to evangelize, and they are also their own reward. The environmental benefits and the rural economic revitalization look after themselves. The future of good farming – and of small farmers – depends on it.
BRONWEN and FRANCIS PERCIVAL are the authors of Reinventing the Wheel: Milk, Microbes, and the Fight for Real Cheese, published in North America by the University of California Press in September and worldwide by Bloomsbury Sigma in November 2017.
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