Tag: Bacteria

Who is Killing the Cheese Makers? Part Two

36-month old Malga Stravecchio

Producing cheese from raw milk and natural rennet, heat and fermentation is older than history. Archaeologists and historians have an idea when it started. That idea, or story if you prefer, is based on a presumption.

The story involved a merchant in an ancient caravanserai – a camel train – on a journey under the hot sun across ancient lands. When the merchant arrived at the destination, milk carried in a bag made from a sheep’s stomach was discovered to be lumpy, churned into curds by the constant jogging of the camel on uneven ground under the heat of that sun.

The same argument has been made for the discovery of yoghurt. Same principle.

Of course it is possible it might have been a deliberate experiment. Meat was tenderised under the saddles of the horsemen who travelled long distances, a tradition that continued until horses became sports stars and lost their natural status in society. Our ancestors never ceased to discover methods to preserve their food, using microbial fermentations and elaborate techniques that are still in use today and cannot be replicated fully by modern methods.

It is the old cliche, if it isn’t broken …

Reportáž z byndziarne vo Zvolenskej Slatine.© Dušan Kittler
The Making of Bryndza, the soft sheep’s cheese of Poland and Slovakia

Whether it was accidental or deliberate is no longer relevant. Somewhere, somehow, someone realised that the character of milk could be altered to produce a food with a longish life – cheese!

Whether this happened 5000 years ago or 3500 years ago is relevant for one reason. The pasteurisation of milk is modern – very modern, a speck in time.

This leaves us with a dilemma. In the countries where cheese has become an integral aspect of the character of farming – ancient and modern – there is a strong raw milk tradition in its preparation.

This includes many European countries, in fact mostly European. That should not be a shock to anyone who knows the history of food. It is also not a surprise that cheese making is a mountain and valley occupation, that goat’s milk rather than sheep’s milk and certainly not cow’s milk has been the driver through time.

The environment is the medium.

Goat’s milk makes fresh cheese, sheep’s milk makes cheese that is adaptable, and cow’s milk makes cheese that has a relatively long life, certainly in the maturation period. Each has a tradition that is unique in the countries where these animals graze the fields and meadows and upland slopes.

It is not a surprise that some of the best cheese in the world comes from countries with high country snow, where the flora is rich in the organoleptic qualities that are transferred to the cheese via the milk.

America does not appear to have a milk or a cheese tradition, yet it is the Americans who are driving the campaign, if it can be called that, to eradicate cheese made from raw milk. They would prefer to ban all products made with raw milk.

Deaths from food poisoning have generally come from mass-produced industrial food or from food that has been contaminated by industrial processes or food tainted by toxic waste. Deaths from eating cheese made with raw milk do not compare.

Pouring the Rennet

Is there an agenda? People who know cheese believe there is.

It starts with the microbes that inhabit the world, the single cell organisms called bacteria. They are present in the milk and are present in the rennet, the enzymatic preparation that clots milk, changing it into curds. These microbes digest the lactose in milk and, in the process, produce lactic acid, which acts as a preservative.

The enzyme is called chymosin. It is found in the stomachs of ruminants – which is why the milk curdled on that famous journey.

When chymosin is introduced to the milk as rennet it converts the proteins from liquid into solid. This coagulation process is the result of a catalytic action. Casein makes up the majority of milk proteins. There are four casein molecules in milk – alpha-s1, alpha-s2, beta and kappa.

The First Curds

Without kappa casein, milk would spontaneously coagulate. Milk proteins are soluble because of kappa casein. When chymosin interacts with kappa casein it converts it into a protein called macropeptide. The milk can no longer hold its liquid state. It clots and changes into curds.

Bacteria are maligned, yet not all bacteria are malignant, many are beneficial and without them our food web would disintegrate. We would have no fermented food, including the aromatic cheeses that allow you ‘to taste the animal’.

The secret of cheese making is the skilful management of microbes, and the management of moisture before and after the process. Therefore cheese should be made with milk that is as fresh as it comes, before any kind of harmful microbial activity can take place. It should be stored in conditions that are not receptive to microbial activity. And, ideally, cheese consumers should be knowledgable when they buy and store cheese.

Cutting the Curds

The pasteurisation of milk will destroy harmful bacteria but it will also produce a different kind of cheese. In their book, Reinventing the Wheel – Milk, Microbes and the Fight for Real Cheese, Bronwen and Francis Percival are typically patronising in their approach to this issue. If the book was less about them and more about cheese, it would be educational. It is not the first book on cheese to patronise its potential readers and it won’t be the last. There is knowledge and wisdom in the Percival book, unfortunately it is hidden among the paragraphs that state ‘look at us, aren’t we clever when we write about cheese?’

Campaigners for real cheese, they are not!

This is the problem and sadly it is not confined to the likes of the Percivals. Ignorance of ‘real’ cheese among the general population has allowed supermarket chains to sell ‘cheap’ cheese, especially in the English speaking world. In their profit before people behaviour, supermarkets dictate what the people purchase. Cheese connoisseurs naturally go elsewhere and are not typically concerned about those who have no understanding of ‘slow food’ and no informed knowledge about artisanal products. That said, not everyone can afford to shop at Neal’s Yard Dairy, where Bronwen Percival is the cheese buyer.

Sadly we now live in a world where ‘real’ cheese is for those with purchasing power and ‘plastic’ cheese is for everyone else. If there is concern about the demise of ‘real’ cheese makers in the English language-speaking countries, it is not manifest among those who are used to hopping over to France, Italy or Switzerland to buy the cheeses that do not travel, like the best Abondance or Appenzeller or Fontina or Malga or Tomme or Sbrinz – all cheeses with strong local traditions, that become expensive when they are purchased at specialist outlets in Dublin or London or New York.CheeseGrotto-lowres

Front counter in Rene Ryser’s cheese shop in Gstaad, Switzerland

Cheese, as Bronwen Percival is not slow to demonstrate, is a continental European sensibility, where cheese can be bought from a dedicated artisanal shop – a fromagerie – or from a market stall, sometimes from the cheese maker themselves, or from a supermarket chain that is sensitive to the desires of its customers.

In Britain and Ireland it is difficult to find a supermarket that has on its shelves ‘real’ cheese. Abondance, the wonderful cheese of the Savoyard region of the French Alps, found its way into the Tesco chain in Ireland, interestingly at a price lower than at Auchan and Carrefour in France and Italy. Miracles do happen!

But we digress.

Published by Bloomsbury

The most interesting chapter in Reinventing the Wheel is chapter seven. For those not as knowledgable about the cheese world as Bronwen Percival, this chapter is worth the price of the book.

When the Percivals state that the regulation of cheese – ‘deciding what is and what isn’t safe to eat’ – is ‘caught up in the fraught discussion of milk hygiene and safety,’ they make a very important point, which they are not slow to elucidate: ‘cheese is not liquid milk’.

As someone who is lactose intolerant and was forced to drink warm milk in school as a child, I find it difficult, 50 years later, to trust those who are entrusted to look after public health. Anyone with a brain, who was forced to drink raw milk as a child during the middle decades of the 1900s in certain countries, worked that out and were told to keep quiet. The pasteurisation of milk solved one problem, authority and morality remain.

Food safety has been an issue since the first nomads settled down in central Anatolia over 11 000 years ago, it came with civilisation and remained all the way into the modern era. Those with knowledge might argue that the French and the Swiss have better standards of food safety than the Americans, yet there is an argument that American-led laboratory science has been let loose on a world that is now scared of its own shadow – rightly so in many instances, but not with cheese made with raw milk and prepared in traditional ways. The Reblochon story in the Percival book is an example of the kind of ‘rational pragmatism’ that should be adopted toward raw milk cheese making.

This is the Swiss reblochon

If the Americans want to impose a zero risk regulation to ensure food safety, that is their prerogative. For those of us who love raw milk cheeses, from the Camembert of Normandie to the Reblochon de Savoie – two cheeses singled out by the Percivals, we will continue to take our chances. Thankfully not everyone lives in the USA.

Unfortunately the future of raw milk cheeses in Britain and Ireland is bleak, because of the American influence. A tradition that is young and weak cannot compete with a tradition that is old and strong. Elizabeth Bradley makes a cheese just as good as any of the similar cheeses made in France and Italy. Her years do not compare with their years. America’s baleful influence on other countries is a worry to those who care about ‘real’ food, never mind ‘real’ cheese.

Of course we here in Fricot are biased. We have absolute faith in traditional methods. All the preserved foods come from an ancient lineage of expertise that resulted in techniques that have been passed down the generations and work as well today as they did thousands of years and countless generations ago.

Mechanisation does not produce good food, that is obvious to anyone who understands the lack of an organoleptic characteristic in anything that is mass produced. It certainly does not produce food as good as cheese made from raw milk.

So what is the real issue?

It might be obvious to say it is about food corporations and their desire to make profits from the mass production of cheese made with ‘safe’ milk. Certainly making money is a strong criteria for those who need to make money.

That would be the easy explanation, the truth this time is hard and complicated.

For now we should celebrate those who want to make cheese because they have a strong desire to produce a product that has organoleptic qualities, that has a unique taste and a depth of flavour, that is the consequence of its environment and their skill.

Fromage "TÍte de Moine"
Tète de Moine (Photo: Ezequiel Scagnetti)

… continued in part three.


Who is Killing the Cheese Makers? Part One




Who is Killing the Cheese Makers?

Goat farmer Elizabeth Bradley is a cheese-maker in Ballybrommel in the flatlands below Mount Leinster in east Carlow, south-east of Dublin. A few kilometers away in Shillelagh under the gaze of the mountains in west Wicklow dairy farmer Tom Burgess uses a portion of his summer milk to make cheese.

They make two of the most aromatic cheeses in Europe, one with goat’s milk, one with cow’s milk. In industry parlance they are artisanal, making hardly enough to mark the shadow of an impression in the billions of exports in dairy products. That is because they sell to local markets. That is one of their problems!

They have other problems, that have nothing to do with making and selling cheese. These problems are shared by most cheese makers across Europe, especially artisanal producers who are not concerned with packaging and supermarkets, with dairies, commerce and exports, and with the glossy promotional images of farmers and cheese that have nothing to do with reality. People who like to be small and be very good at what they do.

Cheese-making in Ireland was an ancient activity. It was part of the fabric of society. Michael Ó Sé, writing about old cheeses (and other milk products) in the Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society in 1948 referred to the traditional coagulants used in cheese-making. Binit (calves rennet) and binit uain (lambs rennet) were used as animal rennets, and mothan (bog violet) as a vegetable rennet. Sadly this tradition died with many of the old ways and for several hundred years Irish cheese-making was just another myth.

By referring to the old methods, using the same raw materials, farmers returned to cheese-making in the 1900s and within two generations Irish cheeses were back on the shelves. Bord Bia, in their promotions for farmhouse cheese-making, noted the fact. “The cheese-makers developed their craft, and enthusiastic friends, enlightened local chefs and shopkeepers put in orders for cheeses and the amateurs slowly evolved into professionals. Experience and knowledge passed to other interested farms and slowly a new food culture began to emerge.”

In Ireland, say Bord Bia (the governmental food department), our farmhouse cheeses are unique to each producer, expressing terroir in the true sense of the word. “This has the advantage of allowing for innovation and creativity, while still respecting the values of traditional cheese-making. Our European neighbours find it hard to believe that each cheese is only produced on one farm and is the result of the passion and dedication of one family.”

“The personality of the cheese-maker is often reflected in aspects of their cheese; from the wild and unpredictable to the precise and consistent. The large range of Irish farmhouse cheeses now available is exceptional considering the youth of the industry and the small size of our island.”

Elizabeth Bradley has just collected 500 litres of raw cow’s milk from a dairy farmer in Bagnelstown. She will pay the fixed market rate of 39 cents a litre. “Most dairy farmers will not sell their milk to small cheese-makers, because they are afraid of any consequences,” she says, driving back to her small farm with the milk in tow. She pumps the milk into her 500 litre vat, adds the starter culture and gradually brings the milk up to 32ºC. Several hours later the curds of cheese rest in containers under a press.

Over in Shillelagh Tom Burgess explains why the grass is the hero of his Irish cheddar. “It is made from grass-fed milk, other cheddars are not made from grass milk. So my cheddar is a yellow colour. English cheddars are white. It is still-growing grass, living, a natural environment.”

His 150 cows graze 200 acres. They calve in February and March, and milk through the summer when the grass is growing. Milking is stopped in November and December. For that reason he realised he needed a product with a long shelf life and decided on cheddar.

“There was already a demand for cheddar, and I felt the customer would move onto a stronger cheddar and pay more for a better sample. It melts well, cooks well, people know cheddar. It fitted my production profile, which was seasonal production.”

“It is a mature cheddar so I make the whole year’s production and then I store it. We make about 200-250 kilos a day over 80 days, that’s 16 tonnes. And we are still increasing. We are selling it but we would like to put it in the supermarkets where it will sell in volume.”

He employs two people to make the cheese. “I am able to pay them, instead of working on my own, the milk lorry arriving in the middle of the night, and still make a sustainable living out of my cattle.”


The Moo Man film makers Andy Heathcote and Heike Bachelier might come to Ireland to feature the work of raw milk cheese-makers. After the success of their film about Sussex dairy farmer Steve Hook and his small organic raw milk business, it is no surprise to hear that the next stage of the process – cheese-making – is on their agenda.

Heathcote was drawn to the story of Errington Cheese who were forced to close their business after the authorities in Scotland implicated them in an outbreak of ecoli and has decided that the wider issue of bacteria in raw milk cheese should be investigated. His initial investigations tell him that there are numerous agendas, and for those reasons there are genuine fears for raw milk cheese-makers like Bradley and Burgess.

Rules that do not apply to raw milk cheese makers in France, Italy or Switzerland, where raw milk cheeses are celebrated as part of a regional food culture that attracts tourists and customers, are being applied to Irish and Scottish cheese-makers.

Dubliner Ben Sherwood has just finished his thesis on the future of raw milk cheese in Ireland. He is optimistic about Irish cheese but not sure about the future. “We could end up losing all our raw milk cheese-makers unless we do something,” he says. “There do not seem to be many new cheese-makers. Between 1995 and 2015 we lost about two-thirds of our raw milk cheeses.”

Elizabeth Bradley has another theory. “Part of it is the fact that there are very few people depending solely on raw milk cheeses for a livelihood so are therefore not going to take the risk.”

Ben Sherwood wonders whether the Food Safety Authority of Ireland are taking a lead from the Food and Drug Administration in the USA, where soft raw milk cheeses are not allowed. “You cannot sell or import two-month old raw milk cheese.”

This policy is part of the precautionary principle and the FSAI believe they serve the public by being cautious. Earlier this year supermarkets removed a pasteurised cow’s milk brie from their shelves. “As a precautionary measure, SuperValu is recalling batches of Wicklow Blue, due to the possible presence of Listeria monocytogenes,” the FSAI stated in a public announcement.

In 2005 University College Cork food sciences professor Alan Kelly surveyed food scientists on the public understanding of food risk issues and messages, and found that these experts had “little confidence” in the public’s understanding of food risk issues. “The public under-assesses the risk associated with some microbiological hazards and over-assesses the risk associated with other hazards such as genetically modified organisms and bovine spongiform encephalopathy.” They also said that the “media tend to communicate information that is misleading”.

Another reason for FSAI’s concern.


During his student years Ben Sherwood worked part-time in a shop with a specialist cheese counter. It gave him a window into the world of cheese consumers. “Only a small minority who come into the shop come up to the cheese counter,” he says. “People who know their cheeses know what they want, they have their favourites, the ones they are familiar with. Then there are people who haven’t a clue, but want to learn. Those are the best moments, that small interaction and the change in peoples outlook that one piece of cheese can make. They are the key to improving our culture.”

At the street markets across the country it is the same. Some people buy the cheeses they know, while other people want to know more about cheese. If the seller is also the cheese-maker they are in luck. “I think people do care,” says Elizabeth Bradley, “but are bombarded with information, have very busy lives, huge demands from the complex system around them.”

There is, according to Ben, a blissful ignorance about cheese. Despite attempts by the state, through Bord Bia, and others, like Sheridans cheesemongers, to promote Irish cheese, the medium does not convey the message.

Something is wrong.

Who is killing the cheese-makers? We all are, if you believe those who care about cheese, raw milk cheese in particular. From those in authority who display a “terrible arrogance” to those in the artisanal food sector who appear to be ruled by “arrogance and fear” to the consumer who has a “blissful ignorance” and sees food as an entertainment rather than a culture, to a media that has no excellence in food writing.

Who would be a cheese-maker? No one anymore, it would seem!


… continued in part two.