The battle of raw milk is really a battle for biodiversity and we are certainly not alone in it. At Cheese we are growing alliances with others who share the same worldview. David Asher was with us today at the Biodiversity House, an organic farmer, a farmstead cheesemaker and an educator based on the gulf islands of British Columbia, Canada.
Author of The Art of Natural Cheesemaking and a guerilla cheese maker, David refuses to make cheese according to industrial standards. He founded the Black Sheep School of Cheesemaking to revive traditional and natural cheesemaking methods that are in harmony with and benefit from the invisible microorganism communities all around us.
As he advocates through his semi-nomadic educational activities, a connection to, and cooperation with, nature is missing from cheeses. The seasons and the elements, the fauna and the flora and, especially, the microbes are fundamental to make good cheese.
“Natural cheesemaking is more of a craft, similar to natural winemaking, or sourdough breadmaking. Natural cheesemaking has been largely lost due to changes in the industry in both Europe and America. By large, commercial ones, regardless of their scales, make their cheeses with packages of starter cultures. These are not part of a natural cheese, and aren’t even necessary. We simply have to reclaim our traditional methods.”
David practices many millennia old methods that can be easily adopted at home. These are perhaps very intuitive methods, if one pays attention and has faith in the microorganisms.
“Milk is essentially made for cheesemaking, not for putting in our cappuccinos. When a young animal – a young sheep, a goat, or a human for that matter – drinks his mother’s milk, it is transformed into cheese in the stomach of the animal. As a result the young animal is able to digest the mother’s milk and get more nutrition from it.”
When an animal drinks milk directly from their teeth, that milk is not pasteurized nor it is homogenized. According to Asher, that’s a largely forgotten clue to obtain the best cheese. “If you’re able to get milk right from the udder and still warm, that raw milk has an incredible amount of microorganisms that are there for a reason!”
A good fresh raw milk, when left to sit out it, will ferment on its own because of the rich microorganism community in it. There are though, unwanted microorganisms in raw milk that could be potentially dangerous. To tackle that, if you feed the culture with new fresh milk, you would be encouraging beneficial microorganisms’ growth. “Unless it is neglected, raw milk is a very forgiving culture, just like sourdough.”
Where can we find a good raw milk starter?
In some places it is very difficult to get raw milk legally, that’s why I had to get some goats! You can practice cheesemaking even with pasteurized milk. You just have to “un-pasteurize” it with a culture called kefir, a complex subject we can’t get into now.
How did you end up being interested in natural cheesemaking? How did your passion start?
I’m not just a cheesemaker, I’m also an organic farmer. I follow a work cycle in harmony with the soil. When I get produce, I transform them through fermentation. When I started making cheese, I wanted to do exactly the same thing but I couldn’t find any literature in the subject. I didn’t want to use freeze-dried starters but I didn’t know how to proceed.
So I simply let my milk ferment, and it tasted wonderfully and made excellent cheese. I didn’t quite understand what was going on at the time. It took many years of experimentation and play with raw milk and kefir to understand how significant was what I was doing. I was encouraged to teach classes to help develop a lot of the methods that I was using.
What reactions do you get from other cheesemakers?
I haven’t been accepted within the cheesemaking community. It makes cheesemakers question their crafts, most of them are very happy with their starters. They don’t think that it would work without the ready starter packages.
When you make a community of microorganisms your cheese is also more resilient. Many problems are solved with the use of natural starter cultures. Though it is hard for a cheesemaker to simply decide to switch over.
I believe that the methods I am using are also adaptable to a larger scale as long as the milk is fresh and good. I tell hesitant cheesemakers to have faith in fermentation. Just like sourdough is the right way to make bread, encouraging natural microorganisms is the right way to approach cheese. We need to value the biodiversity present in raw milk.
How do you maintain fidelity to taste and texture in natural cheesemaking?
There’s a belief out there that natural cheesemaking practices are inconsistent and unreliable. But I don’t believe that. The cultures can be kept and fed for so long and maintain quality, as long as you have quality fresh milk. I’ve been practicing my way with very consistent results. We accepted sourdough as consistent, why can’t we accept the same also for natural cheesemaking?
How do you tackle discriminatory reactions from industrial cheesemakers?
I’m not a scientist. I have not been able to show scientific evidence of why my methods work. Cheesemakers won’t ever believe anything unless things have scientific end. I believe in farm based research. Raw milk was never refrigerated before to make cheese. This was the original method.
Concerning food safety legislations, how can you keep your business going, when a sterile milk is constantly marketed as the safer option?
There is a great fear about milk. Traditional methods aren’t considered efficient and I think that’s because there hasn’t been much research invested on the quality and safety of traditional practices. Nowadays there are more researches looking into microbes on wood shelves, which actually battle against the unwanted microorganisms. There is an inherent immune system in raw milk that helps keep unwanted organisms away.
Do you also focus on taste education in your school of cheesemaking?
To some extent. It’s not my priority, but I don’t teach a workshop without a tasting element. It is an important part of our education process. When people taste these traditional ferments, they are amazed at how it can all happen entirely naturally.
What’s coming up in the future?
My wife and I have been engaged in traveling and educational activities for a while now. Since we are very well treated and get great reactions, we are going to continue our travel activities. Just today at Cheese I was invited to come to teach in Belgium, Brazil, Turkey, and Mongolia.