Cheese is life, cheese is emotion

08 July 2023

An important topic we’ve been discussing at Cheese since the 2017 edition is the idea of natural cheese, i.e. produced without the use of selected starter cultures.

Permanent meadows and natural cheeses are deeply interconnected, as they both embody naturalness and the richness of biodiversity. In one case, through the variety of plant species; in the other, through natural starter cultures. In both instances, we are talking about life in its truest and purest sense. In this regard, we present an insightful interview with Giampaolo Gaiarin, who has developed profound reflections on the topic of natural cheese through his work over the decades.


Let’s begin with Giampaolo Gaiain himself: who is he and what does he do?

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 only partially through my studies; I owe most of it to the producers, transformers, cheesemakers and breeders I’ve met along the way. This is wisdom for me, not just information, and it has become part of my life.

The Small-Scale Under Attack – September 16

For those who raise animals on a small scale, for those who go to the mountain pastures or graze their livestock, and those who live and work in marginal areas, the challenges to be faced are increasingly numerous and difficult. Their role should be recognized, their work valued and protected, but instead, small-scale producers are under attack on various fronts. There are numerous challenges, like the production of raw milk cheeses, which is still illegal in many countries around the world. Even in Italy, where it seemed like a won battle, it is being questioned in many cases.

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.


formadi frant natural
Formadi frant. Photo: Alberto Peroli

Why should we choose raw milk cheese?

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 its intensely 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 often accused of being dangerous…

Well, the reason some people think that is for the same reason that raw milk cheese is superior to pasteurized cheese: it’s all in the bacteria. Every production stall has its own bacteria – good, nasty, favorable or not favorable for cheesemaking. Pasteurization 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 cheeses more varied, more elaborate, more unique.

Whether good or bad, I want the freedom to choose a product that gives me these unique sensations and perceptions. Pasteurized cheeses, even if they are well produced, will tend to be 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 difference.


Roman Countryside Caciofiore, Photo: Alberto Peroli

Is it correct to define cheese as natural if it isn’t made with selected starter cultures? What’s the difference between selected cultures and natural ones?

If I use a sachet of selected starter culture, I will decrease the odorous and aromatic profile of the cheese. Industrial cultures contain one or two types of bacteria. They ensure the exact sensory profile expected from a given 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. The environmental impact of their production and distribution is huge compared to natural cultures. And in terms of quality, in raw milk we have many different bacteria, and they 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, with different results depending on the animals and what they eat. Natural cheeses reflects their places of origin. In nature the conditions are not always ideal or regulated. Nature has its own 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.


Alpine Gray Cattle
Alpine Gray Cattle, Slow Food Presidium. Photo: Valerie Ganio Vecchiolino

What’s 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, eyes shining as he talks, 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.”

Cheese 2023 is organized by Slow Food and the City of Bra from September 15-18. See you there! #Cheese2023

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