The essential is invisible

17 September 2021

In the last 50 years we’ve lost an enormous quantity of microbial biodiversity, and with it a wealth of shapes, colors and flavors.

This invisible biodiversity is much more complicated to communicate to the general public because it’s hard for people to comprehend the microscopic world of bacteria, fungi and spores.

Consumer attitudes are often shaped by mistrust and fear of an invisible world that is rarely discussed, usually only touched upon when there is some disaster relating to contamination or disease.

This microflora present in raw milk has a variety of sources: it comes from the soil, the plants of the pasture, the guts of the animals, the wooden tools used to treat the milk, the environment where the cheese is aged: all this microbial life contributes to the transformation of cheese, and indeed, the entire universe of fermented foods that we know and love.

But times have changed

In the last 80 years, there’s been a revolution in how we eat, however, with industrialization and globalization both simplifying and standardizing our production processes. This “supermarket” revolution has led to a catastrophic loss in microbial biodiversity, with disastrous consequences whose long-term effects we are not able to comprehend.

In the conference The Essential is Invisible, we invited a panel of both producers and scientists to explore this invisible world: Duccio Cavalieri, Professor of Microbiology at the University of Florence, Mother Noella Marcellino, Prioress of Our Lady of the Rock Benedictine monastery and microbiologist who began making cheese in 1977, Connecticut, USA, and Patrick Mercier, Producer of the Slow Food Presidium for Natural Farmhouse Camembert in France.

A billion cells per gram

As Mother Noella explained, “One gram of soil can harbor up to a billion bacterial cells and a million individual fungal species. These fungi and bacteria are present in the environment, and they contribute to the consistency and flavor of cheese. That’s why it pays to let cheeses age in caves, and let this microbial life develop.”

Mother Noella Marcellino. Photo: Mother Telchilde Hinckley, O.S.B. © Abbey of Regina Laudis.

“There’s a pool of biodiversity which was and is utilized by traditional cheesemakers: they saw empirically that if they used a certain tool in making the cheese, if they used a certain kind of coagulant like the lining of the cow stomach, or if they made the cheese at a certain temperature, or if they aged the cheese in a certain moisture, that they would end up a better cheese both in terms of its nutritional qualities, flavor and aroma.”

“Cheesemakers have to be careful about adding commercial starter cultures, too. If you add too much then there’ll be too much competition among the microbes, all fighting for space and nutrients, and the commercial culture can take over at the expense of the naturally-present microbes. This leads to a loss of biodiversity.”

Legislative battles

Patrick Mercier’s family have worked their farm near the village of Champsecret in Normandy for three generations. His grandfather built the farm with local stone during and after the Second World War, and the family have witnessed all the enormous changes to the rural environment which have taken place since.

In 2000, Patrick did an internship in a small-scale camembert factory owned by a local family, and saw just how delicious the cheese could be when it was made with high-quality, grass-fed raw milk. Though it would be another ten years before Patrick started trying to make camembert himself, he traces his cheesemaking ambitions back to the experience.

Patrick Mercier.

“We have a fight on our hands,” Patrick says. “A tough fight, because there are different levels of authority who demand different things regarding hygiene standards. We use wooden tools when we make our camembert, as is tradition. These wooden tools are stores of microbial biodiversity, and in their small way using them contributes to what makes our camembert natural. The French government, however, has tried to impose a law that would oblige us to use plastic tools, plastic sieves to strain the camembert. Plastic! But thankfully the European Union has overridden these rules and allows us to use our traditional tools.”

Cheese as part of our evolution: lactase persistence

Professor Duccio Cavalieri of the University of Florence spoke about the impact of eating dairy products on human evolution: through continued consumption of milk beyond weaning, some human populations have developed lactase persistence, while the majority of the global population is lactose intolerant beyond infancy.

“Human beings contain around two kilograms of microorganisms, and they interact with our body through the intestinal tract, which can have a surface area of up to 300 square meters. Since the agricultural revolution, when we began to domesticate animals and stopped being hunter-gatherers, our change in diet has affected the evolution of our microbiome. We began to drink the milk of these herbivorous domesticated animals, above all cows, sheep and goats.

Cheese from an Ancient Egyptian tomb. Photo: University of Catania and Cairo University

“For most mammals and indeed most humans, the enzyme required to digest lactose is no longer produced beyond infancy. But in co-existing in symbiosis with these domesticated herbivores for 15,000 years, we’ve made it possible to eat dairy products throughout our lives. Cheese, indeed, is part of this process of evolution too, as it’s a way of preserving milk for a long time and having access even when there’s no fresh milk. And in doing so, we give rise to an even greater variety of biodiversity as the microorganisms develop in the cheese.

“Can we control this world of microflora in a way that is not too intrusive or invasive? Well, in order to understand if we can do that, we need to have a much better knowledge of the biodiversity in front of us. We do need to much more research, and many more experiments. There is still so much we don’t understand.”

Onward and inward

As with any field of the natural sciences, continuous research and investigation will bear continuous fruits. We cannot afford to ignore Think about these huge a technology revolution to study this biodiversity on site and we can give cheese makers and producers some tools that can allow them to make products and safe products and very enjoyable products and therefore the understanding of micro. Orban is more than. For making a perfect start, it can actually be useful to become evermore knowledgeable consumers.

by Nicholas Panayi, info.eventi@slowfood.it

Watch the conference again: