Producing cheese from raw milk and natural rennet, heat and fermentation is older than history. Archaeologists and historians have an idea when it started. That idea, or story if you prefer, is based on a presumption.
The story involved a merchant in an ancient caravanserai – a camel train – on a journey under the hot sun across ancient lands. When the merchant arrived at the destination, milk carried in a bag made from a sheep’s stomach was discovered to be lumpy, churned into curds by the constant jogging of the camel on uneven ground under the heat of that sun.
The same argument has been made for the discovery of yoghurt. Same principle.
Of course it is possible it might have been a deliberate experiment. Meat was tenderised under the saddles of the horsemen who travelled long distances, a tradition that continued until horses became sports stars and lost their natural status in society. Our ancestors never ceased to discover methods to preserve their food, using microbial fermentations and elaborate techniques that are still in use today and cannot be replicated fully by modern methods.
It is the old cliche, if it isn’t broken …
Whether it was accidental or deliberate is no longer relevant. Somewhere, somehow, someone realised that the character of milk could be altered to produce a food with a longish life – cheese!
Whether this happened 5000 years ago or 3500 years ago is relevant for one reason. The pasteurisation of milk is modern – very modern, a speck in time.
This leaves us with a dilemma. In the countries where cheese has become an integral aspect of the character of farming – ancient and modern – there is a strong raw milk tradition in its preparation.
This includes many European countries, in fact mostly European. That should not be a shock to anyone who knows the history of food. It is also not a surprise that cheese making is a mountain and valley occupation, that goat’s milk rather than sheep’s milk and certainly not cow’s milk has been the driver through time.
The environment is the medium.
Goat’s milk makes fresh cheese, sheep’s milk makes cheese that is adaptable, and cow’s milk makes cheese that has a relatively long life, certainly in the maturation period. Each has a tradition that is unique in the countries where these animals graze the fields and meadows and upland slopes.
It is not a surprise that some of the best cheese in the world comes from countries with high country snow, where the flora is rich in the organoleptic qualities that are transferred to the cheese via the milk.
America does not appear to have a milk or a cheese tradition, yet it is the Americans who are driving the campaign, if it can be called that, to eradicate cheese made from raw milk. They would prefer to ban all products made with raw milk.
Deaths from food poisoning have generally come from mass-produced industrial food or from food that has been contaminated by industrial processes or food tainted by toxic waste. Deaths from eating cheese made with raw milk do not compare.
Is there an agenda? People who know cheese believe there is.
It starts with the microbes that inhabit the world, the single cell organisms called bacteria. They are present in the milk and are present in the rennet, the enzymatic preparation that clots milk, changing it into curds. These microbes digest the lactose in milk and, in the process, produce lactic acid, which acts as a preservative.
The enzyme is called chymosin. It is found in the stomachs of ruminants – which is why the milk curdled on that famous journey.
When chymosin is introduced to the milk as rennet it converts the proteins from liquid into solid. This coagulation process is the result of a catalytic action. Casein makes up the majority of milk proteins. There are four casein molecules in milk – alpha-s1, alpha-s2, beta and kappa.
Without kappa casein, milk would spontaneously coagulate. Milk proteins are soluble because of kappa casein. When chymosin interacts with kappa casein it converts it into a protein called macropeptide. The milk can no longer hold its liquid state. It clots and changes into curds.
Bacteria are maligned, yet not all bacteria are malignant, many are beneficial and without them our food web would disintegrate. We would have no fermented food, including the aromatic cheeses that allow you ‘to taste the animal’.
The secret of cheese making is the skilful management of microbes, and the management of moisture before and after the process. Therefore cheese should be made with milk that is as fresh as it comes, before any kind of harmful microbial activity can take place. It should be stored in conditions that are not receptive to microbial activity. And, ideally, cheese consumers should be knowledgable when they buy and store cheese.
The pasteurisation of milk will destroy harmful bacteria but it will also produce a different kind of cheese. In their book, Reinventing the Wheel – Milk, Microbes and the Fight for Real Cheese, Bronwen and Francis Percival are typically patronising in their approach to this issue. If the book was less about them and more about cheese, it would be educational. It is not the first book on cheese to patronise its potential readers and it won’t be the last. There is knowledge and wisdom in the Percival book, unfortunately it is hidden among the paragraphs that state ‘look at us, aren’t we clever when we write about cheese?’
Campaigners for real cheese, they are not!
This is the problem and sadly it is not confined to the likes of the Percivals. Ignorance of ‘real’ cheese among the general population has allowed supermarket chains to sell ‘cheap’ cheese, especially in the English speaking world. In their profit before people behaviour, supermarkets dictate what the people purchase. Cheese connoisseurs naturally go elsewhere and are not typically concerned about those who have no understanding of ‘slow food’ and no informed knowledge about artisanal products. That said, not everyone can afford to shop at Neal’s Yard Dairy, where Bronwen Percival is the cheese buyer.
Rene Ryser manages a cheese grotto and a cheese shop in the Swiss Alps
Sadly we now live in a world where ‘real’ cheese is for those with purchasing power and ‘plastic’ cheese is for everyone else. If there is concern about the demise of ‘real’ cheese makers in the English language-speaking countries, it is not manifest among those who are used to hopping over to France, Italy or Switzerland to buy the cheeses that do not travel, like the best Abondance or Appenzeller or Fontina or Malga or Tomme or Sbrinz – all cheeses with strong local traditions, that become expensive when they are purchased at specialist outlets in Dublin or London or New York.
Cheese, as Bronwen Percival is not slow to demonstrate, is a continental European sensibility, where cheese can be bought from a dedicated artisanal shop – a fromagerie – or from a market stall, sometimes from the cheese maker themselves, or from a supermarket chain that is sensitive to the desires of its customers.
In Britain and Ireland it is difficult to find a supermarket that has on its shelves ‘real’ cheese. Abondance, the wonderful cheese of the Savoyard region of the French Alps, found its way into the Tesco chain in Ireland, interestingly at a price lower than at Auchan and Carrefour in France and Italy. Miracles do happen!
But we digress.
The most interesting chapter in Reinventing the Wheel is chapter seven. For those not as knowledgable about the cheese world as Bronwen Percival, this chapter is worth the price of the book.
When the Percivals state that the regulation of cheese – ‘deciding what is and what isn’t safe to eat’ – is ‘caught up in the fraught discussion of milk hygiene and safety,’ they make a very important point, which they are not slow to elucidate: ‘cheese is not liquid milk’.
As someone who is lactose intolerant and was forced to drink warm milk in school as a child, I find it difficult, 50 years later, to trust those who are entrusted to look after public health. Anyone with a brain, who was forced to drink raw milk as a child during the middle decades of the 1900s in certain countries, worked that out and were told to keep quiet. The pasteurisation of milk solved one problem, authority and morality remain.
Food safety has been an issue since the first nomads settled down in central Anatolia over 11 000 years ago, it came with civilisation and remained all the way into the modern era. Those with knowledge might argue that the French and the Swiss have better standards of food safety than the Americans, yet there is an argument that American-led laboratory science has been let loose on a world that is now scared of its own shadow – rightly so in many instances, but not with cheese made with raw milk and prepared in traditional ways. The Reblochon story in the Percival book is an example of the kind of ‘rational pragmatism’ that should be adopted toward raw milk cheese making.
If the Americans want to impose a zero risk regulation to ensure food safety, that is their prerogative. For those of us who love raw milk cheeses, from the Camembert of Normandie to the Reblochon de Savoie – two cheeses singled out by the Percivals, we will continue to take our chances. Thankfully not everyone lives in the USA.
Unfortunately the future of raw milk cheeses in Britain and Ireland is bleak, because of the American influence. A tradition that is young and weak cannot compete with a tradition that is old and strong. Elizabeth Bradley makes a cheese just as good as any of the similar cheeses made in France and Italy. Her years do not compare with their years. America’s baleful influence on other countries is a worry to those who care about ‘real’ food, never mind ‘real’ cheese.
Of course we here in Fricot are biased. We have absolute faith in traditional methods. All the preserved foods come from an ancient lineage of expertise that resulted in techniques that have been passed down the generations and work as well today as they did thousands of years and countless generations ago.
Mechanisation does not produce good food, that is obvious to anyone who understands the lack of an organoleptic characteristic in anything that is mass produced. It certainly does not produce food as good as cheese made from raw milk.
So what is the real issue?
It might be obvious to say it is about food corporations and their desire to make profits from the mass production of cheese made with ‘safe’ milk. Certainly making money is a strong criteria for those who need to make money.
That would be the easy explanation, the truth this time is hard and complicated.
For now we should celebrate those who want to make cheese because they have a strong desire to produce a product that has organoleptic qualities, that has a unique taste and a depth of flavour, that is the consequence of its environment and their skill.