Cheese is emotion, cheese is life

23 August 2021

At Cheese 2021 it’s not just animals under the spotlight. An important debate that we started in 2017 revolves around natural cheeses, whose production takes place without the use of selected ferments.

It’s not always an easy concept to explain, but we’ll frame it in terms of the Slow Food philosophy in a few different ways: in an online conference, The Essential is Invisible,  at the stands of the small-scale fermier producers at the market, and in our Taste Workshops.

We republish here an interview with Giampaolo Gaiarin from 2019, who has written extensively—and poetically!—on the theme of natural cheeses.

TRANSMITTING KNOWLEDGE, COMMUNICATING PASSION

Tell us a little about you and what you 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.

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.

RAW MILK

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 what animals eat is transferred to its milk, which we can also find in cheese if we use raw milk and 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.

GOOD BACTERIA, BAD BACTERIA

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.

NATURAL VS INDUSTRIAL

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.

ANIMAL BREEDS

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 continue, 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.”

by Silvia Ceriani, info.eventi@slowfood.it

Come to the online conference The Essential is Invisible: the battle for natural products, on September 16 at 7 p.m. Rome time.