Reinventing the Wheel: Milk, Microbes and the Fight for Real Cheese

On a delightful - and unusually - warm October Sunday evening, Boston Cheese Cellar was fortunate to host Francis and Bronwen Percival. Francis is a highly awarded wine writer, and Bronwen is cheese buyer/mentor at Neal's Yard Dairy. Together they have written quite simply one of the best books about cheese, or food, for a long time. They had come to Boston to talk about their book, and of course to sign copies.

Reinventing the Wheel, takes on not just one aspect of cheese, but the whole landscape and industry. Moving eloquently through dairying to the cheese on a retail counter, Bronwen and Francis challenge the reader if the current status quo is what we should settle for.

Are we happy with the dairy farmer and cheese maker living a borderline existence, the cheese industry ruled by massive cooperate conglomerates, and the consumer not knowing the difference between a summer Comté or a factory block of sweet designer-cheddar?

Full Sensory Experience

During the reception both before and after the book discussion, we were also very lucky to have representatives from the Oldways organisation which is a advocate group for raw milk cheese, as well as Kristian the cheesemaker from Appleton Farms, who brought with him some cheese, some raw milk, and grass, hay and bailage, all from the same same field - a full sensory experience.

And of course, there was more cheese to try. Three cheeses which exemplified the principles of Bronwen and Francis's book were available to sample: Salers Tradition, Hafod Cheddar, and Kirkham's Mature Lancashire.


Our time during the evening was not sufficient for an entire debrief on the book, rather Bronwen and Francis read specific passages of their book, to focus on a several aspects.

First, the discussion focussed on some 'Moral Hazards' which disconnect dairying, cheesemaking and ultimately the consumer: heavy use of fertilisers, pasteurisation of milk and insensitive use of cultures (pp 25-26 US hardback edition).

Fertilisers have allowed the human population to explode through increasing agricultural yields, but by doing so have actually caused a loss of biodiversity within these fields, by direct bias towards fast growing plants, or by affecting the way farmers deal with the crop - such as making silage. What we put on our fields directly changes the quality of the milk, our cheese, and ultimately our health.

Pasteurisation of milk was developed to help sell butter, became widely used to extend the shelf life of liquid milk - and now has been seized upon by regulatory authorities as a way to 'make cheese safe' from the 'risk' of raw milk cheese. Francis put this risk is perspective - an adult in the USA would have to eat 19 lbs of raw milk cheese in a year to have the same chance of dying as driving 1 mile on American roads.

The use of cultures has created a pasteurized cheese industry where the danger is that all cheeses taste the same. Not many companies produce starter or ripening cultures, unlike nature, where the natural species of microbes vary slightly across dairy to dairy and farm to farm, creating a unique microbial 'terroir' in each environment.


How can the cheese tradition be protected but stay viable? This was our final discussion point, using examples of the French cooperative AOC groups as well as the Swiss production regulated models (pp 220-222 US hardback edition). Neither approach seemed satisfactory, as although they provided support for the cheesemakers, the compromise was a loss of identity of each of all of the cheesemakers and dairies.

The best answer so far was the French affineur Laurent Dubois, who included the name of the cheese maker on his aged cheese, so that the consumer would understand the full lineage of each cheese.

If trade organisations could provide support (financial, technical & advocacy) for cheesemakers, so that there could be some form of collective access to market, yet also allow them to retain an individual identity, we would eventually gain cheese which had not been bludgeoned into a brand, but allowed to express the unique terroir that only raw milk cheese can do.

It is after all, to quote Bronwen and Francis themselves:

"Milk made knowable".