The Challenge of Natural Cheese

In addition to raw milk, another theme of Cheese 2017 is “naturalness” in foods – cheeses, cured meats, wines and beers free of nitrites and nitrates, additives or selected starter cultures.

The concept is not easy, nor immediate, but we’ll try to explain it our way: through nine Taste Workshops dedicated to the theme, inside the Spazio Libero (Free Space) that will host natural food products, and through a series of conferences to examine the matter in depth.

One event is the Natural Challenge with Giampaolo Gaiarin, a professor at the Edmund Mach Foundation in Trentino.

Giampaolo Gaiarin with Piero Sardo at Cheese 2013.

I interviewed him after a day of training in Bra. He was invited to explain us, the Slow Food staff, concepts that weren’t always crystal clear to us – raw milk, natural cheese and dairy breeds. At the end of the lesson – two and a half hours flew by – we were all happier and more aware.

SLOW FOOD: Tell us a little about you and what you do.

Giampaolo: Before teaching, I was responsible for quality control at the Consortium Trentingrana. Then I chose to go into teaching. Everything I know about cheese and dairy, I learned it partially through my studies. But I owe most of it to producers, transformers, cheese makers and breeders. This is wisdom for me, not just information, and it has become part of my life.  Transmitting my knowledge to young students is a great challenge. It is important to be precise, technical and scientific, but at the same time to have passion. This is not simply passing on information like an internet search, but understanding how everything is connected to the process of transformation.



Why should we choose raw milk cheeses?

If we can nourish, not just feed, but really nourish ourselves with natural milk and cheese, I believe this is a great thing in this technologically-evolved world with intensively modified food. To nourish means making sure that our bodies benefit from what we eat. What nature puts into raw milk, we can use to our benefit, to nourish ourselves. The nutritional value of the animal’s feed is transferred to its milk, which we also find in cheese, if we use raw milk and a technology that respects the milk’s value. If the animal feeds on grass of a certain pasture at the beginning of the alpine season, rather than three weeks later, we find all the differences in the cheese made from their raw milk in the form of taste and aroma.

Raw milk is sometimes believed to be dangerous.

Well, another reason to choose raw milk is hardly visible: bacteria. Every production stall has its own bacteria – good, nasty, favorable or not favorable for cheese making. The pasteurization industry eliminates these differences. What we ask of those who work with raw milk is to be respectful of milk, to produce it well, to preserve it appropriately, not to contaminate it with dirty equipment, to safeguard it. In this safekeeping, there are odorous and aromatic aspects and useful bacteria that make cheese more varied, more elaborated. Good or bad, I want the freedom to choose a product that gives me sensations, perceptions. A pasteurized milk cheese, even if it is well produced, is homogeneous over time. I like to eat the cheese made from mountain pastures at the beginning of July and the end of July, and to be able to perceive the differences.

Pastures of Moena Puzzone, Slow Food Presidium, Trentino Alto Adige. Photo by Marco Bruzzo


Is it correct to define “natural cheese” as a cheese that doesn’t contain selected starter cultures? What is the difference between industrial and natural cultures?

If I use a bag of selected cultures, I will decrease the odorous and aromatic profile of the cheese. Industrial cultures contain one or maximum two types of bacteria. They ensure the exact same sensory profile expected from a cheese. However, if I use the good bacteria present in my production place, I activate a short-chain natural process. In industrial cultures, maybe produced in Australia, bacteria travel long distances. Their environmental impact is so different from the environmental impact of natural cultures. Also in terms of quality, in raw milk we have many different bacteria, and all contribute to giving specific smells and aromas to the cheese. In a natural process, there are positive aspects if the milk is treated well; and negative, if it is badly handled.

In an industrial system, milk can be produced as desired, within the limits of legislation. If it is not produced in the right conditions, I can eliminate all the negative characteristics with pasteurization. If I use raw milk instead, the characteristics of the milk are exalted in the milk, with different results. Natural cheese reflects the territory it comes from. In nature, the conditions are not always ideal or regulated. Nature has its own life cycles and surprises, both good and bad. Producing cheese naturally with raw milk means having the possibility to experience a different sunset and sunrise every day.

What do you think is the best dairy breed?

The best breed is the one that adapts best to the conditions of its environment. If we take a Friesian cow and take her up to 2000 meters above sea level, she will have great difficulty adapting. On the other hand, if I take a Grigio Alpina cow, which is used to the mountains, down to the plains of the Po Valley, she will also have difficulty. We need to preserve breeds that are suited to certain territories, preserve the biodiversity related to the breed, to the pastures, and to the know-how of the cheese makers that work with them.

Giampaolo continues… He speaks of Planalto Nolte raw milk goat cheeses and Tcherni Vit green cheese, and other Slow Food Presidium cheeses that he has witnessed and helped grow. His eyes are shining when he talks of them, and from his last sentence I understand why: “Cheese is life, cheese is emotion. If we pasteurize milk and use selected cultures we lose all this. Let’s conserve this way of producing that respects the environment, and gives us emotions.”

by Silvia Ceriani

The video interview of Giampaolo Gaiarin has been done in collaboration with Granaries of Memory project. The complete version of the interview is available here in Italian.

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