The Dark Side of the Cheese

It’s that time. Up until now we’ve only shared with you the very best: raw milk cheese, artistic affinage, the finest expressions of cow, goat and sheep’s milk. 

But speaking of “cheese”, there are some products out there that seem to come from a different planet altogether. Today we’re going to show you the other side of the coin, a River of Styx where liquid cheese runs in the place of lava. Abandon all hope ye who enter here.

This August, while the heat terrorizes our towns, we take a trip through the Dark Side of the Cheese…

THE DARK SIDE OF THE CHEESE 

To that end, check out the conference at the stand of the University of Gastronomic Sciences on Sunday, September 22 at 11.30 a.m, where Silvio Greco focuses on the innumerable cases of food fraud: from the recycling and repackaging of expired foods to cheeses which claim to come from a particular region but which are in fact made with pulled-curd from imported milk. The percentage of cases is on the rise, and at Cheese we are legitimately worried by this trend. But let’s come back to our journey through this netherworld.

PROSCHUTTA OR EASY CHEESE? 

We’ll start with an easy one that’s sure to make an impact. If the common packages of slice ham we find in supermarkets are already enough to raise our suspicions, what do we say to Proschutta? A round, paper-thin slice of cheese, perfect for a fast sandwich. But what’s more important is that Proschutta incorporates tiny slices of cubes of cooked ham. Something that might push the grandmother of Michael Pollan – who turned up her nose at any recipe with more than five ingredients – to burn down the supermarket. We found it through one of the most expert and entertaining junk food blogs, Spaghetti Bolognese, and the food itself was seen in an unidentified shop in Berlin. Let’s move on to a “traditional” dark side cheese. We can call it that because Easy Cheese has a pretty long history. First produced by Nabisco in 1965 and still on the market today, incredibly. Distributed by Mondelez International, it’s also known as aerosol cheese, spray cheese, or cheese in a can. It’s a soft, cheese-flavored cream made with milk, water, whey protein concentrate, rapeseed oil, milk protein concentrate, trisodium citrate, trisodium phosphate, tricalcium phosphate, lactic acid, sorbic acid, sodium ascorbate, apocarotenal, annatto, cheese culture and enzymes, bottled in a can and ready to spray directly into your mouth, if so desired. You can find it a number of different Cheddar-style flavor or even the mysterious “American” flavor.

APPETIZER A classic of the world of industrial cheese are the snacks which combine corn and cheese, the kind that leave a film of milk and artificial aromas on your fingers. There are lots out there, but one type in particular that we want to bring to your attention are the Mac N’ Cheetos, which aren’t exactly corn snacks but a kind of croquette filled with macaroni soaked in cheese-flavored cream. We’ll happily admit to never having eaten them personally, and put our faith in the review of Bryan Bierman. Speaking of colored cheese, Slow Food is happy to fly the flag for cheeses which aren’t necessarily white: yellow cheeses indicate the presence of beta carotene, which is transferred from the grass to the milk of the cow. However, artificially-dyed and flavored cheeses like Basiron Pesto leave us a little perplexed. It’s actually a Gouda, but its color is uniformly green, and processed to taste of basil and garlic. Lovers of bright colors will be happy to know there are even more extreme versions out there, like the Basiron Pesto Rosso and Basiron Tricolore, which mixes green peppers, red chili peppers and white goat’s milk to recreate the Italian flag in a “cheese product”… there’s even a purple-colored Basiron Lavender, for all those who dream of eating cheeses that look like soap.

BIG CHEESE, BIG SCAM

Poor Cheddar. While we promote as one of the cheeses to try at Cheese when we’re dealing with its original, traditional form, nowadays the real thing is incredibly hard to find and produced by just a handful of English cheesemakers. The industrial form, on the other hand, it’s the most widespread cheese in the world, and we can find it pre-packaged in blocks, slices of varying thickness, and even grated. These industrial versions are also a key ingredient for a lot of junk food, including Cheddar Cheese Popcorn. The package guarantees it’s “Cheddar at its best”, but we’re not entirely convinced. Cheddar’s not the only famous cheese to feature in this sad repertoire, of course. Just ask one of our official partners at Cheese, the Parmigiano Reggiano consortium, how many imitations of this great Italian cheese you can find in other countries. Despite the fact that real Parmigiano Reggiano is produced in a specific area with raw milk from cows raised on a silage-free diet, and without the use of selected starter cultures. Nothing of this culture remains in the various  styles of Parmesan Cheese found around the world, including Rondelé Peppercorn Parmesan: a “gourmet spreadable cheese” made with pasteurized milk, flavored with pepper and processed to be spreadable!

IMITATION, PROCESSED, EDUCATION

In researching this strange world we couldn’t not read some of the cheesier recipes prepared by food bloggers, show cooks and TV/web cooking shows. When they of cheese, the instructions of many self-styled chefs call for the use of processed cheese, with “normal cheese” as an alternative, i.e. a second choice. But what is processed cheese, exactly? The Wikipedia page gives a rather synthetic introduction, and credits the invention to Walter Gerber of Switzerland, in 1911. It’s a food product which is made using cheese, but which contains many other ingredients beyond the classic milk, rennet and salt. A processed cheese may contain emulsifiers, saturated vegetable oil, extra salt, food coloring, whey or sugar. The “variety” of flavors and consistencies on offer is not a product of pastures, breeds, milks or cheesemaking ingenuity, but the chemical combination of additives which allow industrial cheesemakers to obtain characteristics that natural cheese cannot guarantee, such as homogeneity and low cost. Many of the cheeses we’ve mentioned above belong to this category, but we’d like to focus now on one particular set of products, which come together as pictured, perfect for Christmas. There’s one variety of processed cheese which is designed specially for melting on pizza, remaining rubbery. The product description imagines this to be the most important quality, while milk doesn’t even enter into the equation: “artificial cheese much faster and cheaper to produce compared to real cheese”. It’s soft and streamlined, the best “pizza cheese analogue”. For Slow Food gastronomic education is of utmost importance, so you can imagine our joy in seeing the fantastic Macaroni & Cheese in the form of SpongeBob. While in principle there’s nothing wrong with food “in the shape of” something, to make it more appetizing for children, when the substance of the food is so artificial, industrially-produced with preservatives, additives, colors and unhealthy levels of salt and sugar… it’s not giving our children the best start in life.

THE (B)RIGHT SIDE OF THE CHEESE

After all we’ve been talking about in recent months, it should come as no surprise to learn:

  • None of these “cheeses” will be present at Cheese 2019, obviously.
  • We’re not advising you to taste them: it’s a simple summer deviation, for entertainment purposes only!
  • Slow Food continues to fight for raw milk cheeses, artisanal products made with real milk from pasture-raised animals, where possible without the use of selected starter cultures.
  • That said, you can bury this list under a pizza headstone, with extra cheese on top.

by Silvia Ceriani, info.eventi@slowfood.it

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