Have faith in microorganisms and natural cheese!

22 July 2023

The battle for raw milk is really a battle for biodiversity and we are certainly not alone in it. Every two years. at Cheese, we grow alliances with others who share the same worldview.

One of these allies (and a frequent visitor at Cheese) is David Asher, an organic farmer, cheesemaker and educator in British Columbia, in Canada. Author of The Art of Natural Cheesemaking and Guerrilla cheese maker, David is a champion of natural cheese, one who refuses to make cheese according to industrial standards. He founded the Black Sheep School of Cheesemaking with the aim of promoting and divulging traditional, natural methods of cheesemaking practiced in harmony with the invisible community of microorganisms which surround us. This interview was originally published for Cheese 2017, and is still relevant today.

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 cheese to reconnect with nature

microorganisms Asher natural cheese
Orobiche Valleys Traditional Stracchino, Slow Food Presidium, Lombardy. Photo: Alberto Peroli

“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.

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 social, environmental, and economic problems, and in this meeting, we denounce the main ones: for example, the production of raw milk cheeses is still considered illegal in many countries around the world and, even in Italy, where it seemed like a won battle, it is being questioned in many cases.

“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.”

“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.” 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.”

Passion for the natural

microorganisms asher natural cheese
Cilento cacioricotta, Slow Food Presidium, Campania. Ph. Giuseppe Cucco

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?

Fear of raw milk

microorganisms asher natural cheese

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.

by Buket Soyyilmaz, [email protected]

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

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