Natural cheese: let the future resemble the past

The word “natural” has become ubiquitous in our society; it is used in reference to food, wine, health, and clothing, among other things, and is as important in marketing as it is for individuals who use it to demonstrate that they are informed and morally conscious.

But what does “natural” really mean? In some countries and market sectors, it has a legal definition, but the range of such definitions and the frequency with which the word is used, even in casual conversation, have made it almost meaningless. Despite this, “natural” is virtually always understood to be good.

DEFINE NATURAL

Thinking about how to define “natural” even in the context of a topic as specific as cheese presents numerous challenges. In order to work through some of these challenges, thinking about the theme of Cheese 2019 – “Natural is Possible” – a group of cheese producers, experts, and academics gathered to share their perspectives.

The panelists in the round table discussion entitled Natural Cheese: From Pastures and Breeds to Raw Milk and Natural Starters included Piero Sardo, president of the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity; Giampaolo Gaiarin from Fondazione Edmund Mach, and the coordinator of Slow Food Presidia in Trentino, Italy; Andrea Cavellero, professor at the University of Torino and researcher on Alpine pastures; Patrick Mercier, producer of Natural Farmhouse Camembert (a Slow Food Presidium); Nicola Bertinelli, president of the Parmigiano Reggiano Consortium; Bronwen Percival, co-author of Reinventing the Wheel: Milk, Microbes and the Fight for Real Cheese and technical manager at Neal’s Yard Dairy in the UK; and David Asher, a Canadian cheesemaker, educator, and the author of The Art of Natural Cheesemaking.

Bagolino Bagòss, a Slow Food Presidium

MORE THAN JUST MILK

Bronwen Percival thought back to the 2017 edition of Cheese, which focused on raw milk, and said that Slow Food’s decision to only accept producers and vendors working with raw milk was transformative, and that the logical next step was to shine the spotlight on natural cheese. Bronwen believes that the cheese industry must decide what quality means, and how quality relates to “natural”; she also acknowledges that this is no easy task, and emphasized that the discussion must embrace the full complexity of cheesemaking. Importantly, she reviewed some of the scientific research that demonstrates that a cheese made with natural ferments is and perceptibly different from the same cheese made in the same dairy, but using selected ferments.

In another conference, entitled Good Milk Starts with Grass, Maria Piochi of the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo shared similar findings: When a group of trained sensory analysts blindly tasted cheeses made in different seasons, it was shown that seasonality has a statistically significant effect on the sensory characteristics of cheese, from visual appearance to flavor.

In other words, “natural” is not just a nice idea; it’s something that we can measure. In order to measure it, though, we must understand that, when it comes to cheese, “natural” is not just about raw milk vs pasteurized milk, or natural ferments vs selected ferments. It is an approach to and reflection of everything from livestock breeds and animals’ diets to the composition of plant communities in pastures and microbial communities present in the dairy, and from the purposes for which various kinds of animals are bred to the decisions that cheese producers make during every step of the cheesemaking process.

THE IMPORTANCE OF PASTURE

Professor Cavallero honed in on the importance of pastures and the human relationship with the landscape. In the Alps, people and their animals have shaped affected the land over the course of millennia—indeed, the word “alp” come from the Celtic word “aulp,” which means “pasture.” In the Western Alps alone, there are 92 distinct pasture types hosting more than 800 plant species that are of interest to grazing animals, and this biodiversity is reflected in the milk that these grazers produce.

As Professor Cavallero said, “a territory is a sign for the dairy products that are produced there, and each product is a sign of that territory.” He believes that the market and individual consumers should value diversity, seasonality, and the specificity of each territory, as well as appreciate the fact that, in addition to being the basis for animal health and dairy products with complex flavors, well-managed pastures also absorb carbon and provide important ecosystem services, which in turn have important consequences for local economies and communities.

Castel del Monte Canestrato, a Slow Food Presidium

TRANSFORMING PRODUCTION

In the conference on grass milk, Claudia Masera of Cascina Roseleto in Italy, and Jonny Crickmore, a dairy farmer and member of the Raw Milk Producers Association in the UK, spoke about how they transformed their farms to be more natural: Claudia Masera’s farm used to grow 24 hectares of maize to use as feed for cows that were kept in stalls, but recently she re-sowed all 24 ha with grasses and put her cows out on pasture. She said that maintaining healthy pasture is not easy, as you must ensure that no single species becomes dominant, but she uses no fertilizers or pesticides (“just water and sunshine”). Her cows now produce less milk, but of a much higher quality; they live longer; and the farm has become a haven for wildlife.

Jonny Crickmore’s family used to farm Holstein cows intensively and sell pasteurizes milk to a distributor, who then sold it to the market. But Jonny saw that, with intensification, animal health deteriorated, so, following the example of a local hen farmer who sold eggs from a roadside shed, Jonny started selling raw milk directly from his farm: Customers arrives immediately, and Jonny began making 50 times as much profit selling raw grass milk as he had when he sold pasteurized milk from cows kept in stalls. The lesson here is that people are willing to travel to a farm to buy a product that they believe is healthier, tastier, and more environmentally friendly.

THE TRANSITION IS UNDERWAY

Piero Sardo emphasized the transition that is taking place in consumer culture here in Italy, as people no longer satisfied with industrial cheese are now seeking out cheeses that have character. One fundamental aspect of such cheeses is that they are produced with natural fermentation starters created in the dairy, by the cheesemaker, and not with packets of industrially selected bacterial strains. Once of the thing that attracts people to these natural cheeses is that they each have a distinct character.

For Giampaolo Gaiarin, this question of identity is central, and they keys to a cheese with identity are raw milk and natural ferments. Industrial producers rely on about 15 strains of bacteria worldwide, and these strains are propagated and sold by just a handful of companies. On the other hand, a fermentation started created naturally on a dairy farm usually contains 50-60 bacterial strains, all of which contribute to the unique identity of the cheese. Patrick Mercier, who produces natural Camembert from the milk of his Normande cows, likewise believes that raw milk is the only way to express a particular pasture, and he takes great care to handle his milk in such a way that its full complexity will be transmitted to the final cheese, never cooling it to less than 10 °C.

Toumin dal Mel, a new Slow Food Presidium

FERMENTATION

David Asher spoke specifically about fermentation, which he considers an art (“thinking about this process only from a scientific perspective doesn’t do it justice) and, echoing American fermentation revivalist Sandor Katz, views as a form of resistance in the face of corporate culture and control. Part of the corporate corruption that has so damaged the food system and our relationship to food lies in the fact that the same few companies that produce and sell selected ferments also provide education and training for many cheesemakers—a clear conflict of interest.

The transition to industrialized cheese production using pasteurized milk and selected ferments was driven in large part by a belief that raw milk and natural ferments are unsafe, and to this day one of the greatest challenges to small-scale natural producers is the hygiene regulations that prevent people from using natural raw materials and traditional techniques. David Asher has a beautiful and compelling response to this view: “The microorganisms in milk are there for a reason, which is to protect the milk.” Furthermore, “the transfer of microbes from mother animals (or humans) to their babies through milk and physical contact are crucial for the development of the baby’s immune system.” In the same way, the microorganisms present in milk act as an immune system for a natural cheese made from that milk.

NATURAL RENNET

Asher added another element to the discussion: In thinking about natural cheese, we must think about raw milk and natural ferments, of course, but we must also talk about natural rennet. The synthetic rennet that most cheesemakers use also comes from the corporations that make selected ferments, and these synthetic ingredients make small-scale producers dependent on a corporate, profit-oriented market system.

As Bronwen Percival said, “even if, as a small-scale producer, you do everything else as naturally as possible, if you use selected ferments your label is basically just ending up on an industrial product.” According to Asher, the same goes for rennet. The truth is that cheesemakers don’t need to buy ferments or rennet: They already have everything they need in their pastures, in their milk, and in their herds. It makes no sense for a dairy farmer to sell off male calves to an intensive veal operation and then buy synthetic rennet—and, what’s more, the meat from those calves raised in horrible conditions ends up in McDonald’s hamburgers. In other words, the corporate world relies on the “waste” of small farms.

If cheesemakers commit to raising their animals on pasture, working with raw milk, making their own ferments, and using rennet from their own animals, they can simultaneously free themselves from corporate control, undermine the giant businesses that threaten our health and the environment, and create cheeses of unparalleled quality, cheeses that have an identity and tell a story.

If we choose to resist and to embrace the full complexity of what it means to make cheese that truly is natural, we can fundamentally change our world, from pasture to plate.

by Charles Barstow

info.eventi@slowfood.it

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