In the bright sunhine of an early morning start in Bra, on a stage set at the bottom of the main piazza, Bronwen Percival, (one of the leading lights of the traditional British cheese industry) and 4 elderly Italian men from various PDO consortia, sat to discuss aspects on the loss of microbial diversity across cheese making, and its significance on the cheese industry.
Straight from the start, the Italians were quite clear that use of industrial starters is causing two issues: loss of complex and regionally-linked flavor in cheese and the ability to cover up average milk quality. For example, the head of the Parmigiano Reggiano PDO consortium, reflected on the fact that microbial diversity drives slightly different flavors in the cheese, as the production of raw milk stretches across a good area of northern Italy. Each cheesemaker has a different collection of microbes occurring in their regional environment, and therefore the taste while sharing a common core, are all slightly varied. Use of industrial cultures on top of these, or on pasteurized milk, is providing an unnecessary boost, or a bland standardized taste.
Bronwen gave a historical perspective on the development and use of these cultures, both for the acidification of the curd (starters) and flavor (adjuncts). You should definitely grab her book, if you want to learn about the development of these cultures, and how the Danish transformed the cheesemaking industry in their quest for butter. But Bronwen’s passion is her love for the role of the traditional farmstead cheesemakers, the farmers and cheesemakers rolled into one. The production of industrial cultures has separated farming from cheese making which negatively affects the end product – cheese – in a couple of ways. The rythms of farming and cheese making were tied together: the milking, the setting, the feeding, the cutting. The processes were interwoven, and as such these timing created a path to the cheese created by that farmer, with that milk. The disconnection also removes a quality control from the milk – repeating a sentiment from the previous days talk. Poor quality milk becomes someone else’s problem, which is covered up by pasteurization and industrial cultures.
But, how can this character in the flavor of cheese be maintined, and the cheesemakers not be reduced to (even more) minority players in an industry over which they have no control. A memerb of the Tomme de Savoie consortium spoke at the Q&A session afterwards. He mentioned that microbes from the Tomme de Savoie cheesemakers had been collected, pooled and stored. These are then distributed to the cheesemakers when needed. It is definitely an alternative approach, which preserves regional flavor especially for pasteurized cheeses.
It is a hot and never-ending topic, which will have continued debate for years to come.
After the long session, it was off to explore the markets again. And rather than just writing about the delicious cheese, I will let pictures speak for themselves.