Natural Space: Free of Additives

One of the main themes of Cheese 2017 is naturalness, with a dedicated Free Space: natural cured meats free of nitrates, natural wines free of selected yeasts and sulfites, traditional Belgian Lambic beer made with spontaneous fermentation, and sourdough bread free of industrial yeasts.

Agrì di Valtorta, Slow Food Presidium. After an acidic coagulation of raw milk obtained by grafting with a little bit of acid serum retained by the previous processing, add a little rennet and let it rest in the bowl covered with a cloth. Photo by Alberto Peroli

Milk, rennet, salt, and bacteria cultures. Which ones are used to make cheese? Most will say: milk, rennet and salt, forgetting the role of cultures.

Though they may be invisible, often not even written on the label, they are fundamental in the process that transforms milk into cheese. We will try to understand why they are useful. Their action is fundamental, facilitating crud formation, acidification and maturation of milk.

Useful, yes, but not always good for us. In nature, bacteria are found in milk, on the cheesemaker’s hands, on the animal’s udders, in the bucket used for milking, and on wooden tools. Today, the majority of dairies no longer milk by hand; wood is often banned from dairies and the milk passes from tube to tube, from steel to steel, in a perfectly sterilized environment that inhibits the growth of bacterial flora. Although much less evident, this is a loss of biodiversity as well.

Once upon a time, there would have been a million bacteria including 800,000 lactic acid bacteria in every milliliter of milk. These days, there are less than 100,000, while the lactic acid bacteria may account for only 20 to 40 thousand, sometimes zero.

Historic Rebel Cheese. The producers follow strict rules, using no fodder, silage or dietary supplements and no starters. Photo by Alberto Peroli

Milk has become too sterile, too aseptic, too hygienic. In these conditions, what do cheesemakers do? They purchase ready selected cultures to add in the milk in order to start the coagulation process and obtain a more secure, consistent product with a lower instance of defects.

All good then? No, for at least two reasons. Firstly, the taste. The flavor of cheese made using these types of cultures is flat, without defects and without character. What’s more, there are only few multinational companies that produce these ready cultures and have almost total control of the market which the vast majority cheesemakers, of both the pasteurized and raw milk variety, depend on.

At Cheese 2017, we’ll trace a path from raw milk to natural cheeses, that apply the already-existing alternatives to pasteurization, respectful of biodiversity and with a great diversity of flavors and aromas. There are alternatives to industrial cultures—milk-grafting for example—a relatively simple practice but one which requires more work, more time and stricter temperature control. These are solutions that many tend to ignore, simply because it would make their work more complicated and even risky, but the results are worth it. Raw milk cheese is real cheese, as it was developed through the centuries. What the supermarkets offer us now is just a pale imitation.

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