The exquisite 'terroir' of raw dairy

In December 2016, the BBC produced this great story about cheese and microbes. Science now confirm the earliest form of cheesemaking was in 5,000 BC, that was 7,000 years ago.

Bronwen Percival is a cheese buyer for Neal's Yard Dairy in the UK and one of her interests are the connection between a specific farm, its unique milk and the cheese it produces. Bronwen says that the use of pasteurisation and other modern techniques in cheesemaking have contributed to the loss of microbe diversity. This was because of the fear and perception of danger around microbes. Now research is showing beneficial microbes from healthy, non-industrial farms are here to help us. Bronwen says that a (healthy) farm environment has an incredibly rich and diverse microbial community. Microbes are on the skin of the animals, the soil, the feed, on the hands of the cheesemaker and on all the implements used for cheesemaking.

7,000 Years ago when cheese was 'invented' they worked out how to create an environment that allowed them to safely and successfully transform (unpasteurised) milk. Bronwen says that unbeknownst to ancient cultures, they were building a house for microbes. Nobody knew that microbes existed, yet they were the catalyst for creating cheese.

Cheesemaker Dulcie Crickmore from Fen Farm Dairy in Suffolk, England says that raw milk cheeses have a certain microbiological competition which is a very important aspect.

She says the dairy industry is still in a learning curve in these matters. Jonny Crickmore explains that their Baron Bigod, a traditional raw milk Brie-de-Meaux style cheese, have all the bacteria, yeasts and molds from the farm still in tact. It is this uniqueness from that region that lives on in the cheese and can't be found anywhere else. This is called terroir. 

Bronwen Percival says that small scale producers of commodities are seldom in a comfortable economic position. That is why it is essential for them to be able to farm for interesting microbes naturally occurring on their farm. The farmer's good farming practises and hard work are rewarded when the microbes they cultivate express themselves in a desirable cheese. It's a way of adding value that cannot be replicated in a factory.

The importance of microbes goes deeper than just tradition, taste and uniqueness. Epidemiologist Professor Tim Spector says that research into cheese is primitive at the moment compared to other fields like the gut microbiota. 

"We know from the other human studies that the more diverse the microbes in your gut, the more healthy you are going to be; the healthier your immune system." 

Sterility of dairy does not equate safety

A recent article by Slowfood United States highlighted that sterility of dairy does not equate safety. It tells the story of Benedictine nun Sister Noela Marcellino, a cheesemaker from Connecticut, who was forced by health inspectors to stop using her wooden barrels for the making of raw milk cheese. After her switch to stainless steel containers the levels of pathogenic E.coli in the cheese spiked. In short, it was the bacteria living inside the wood itself that kept her original cheese pathogen-free. The wooden container already had all the bacteria needed to produce good cheese. Sister Noella has earned a doctorate in microbiology from the University of Connecticut and a documentary was made about her called 'The Cheese Nun'.

All balanced ecosystems have diversity and a large number of micro-organisms each jostling for their existence. Biodiversity is essential for the flavours, fragrance and safety of raw milk cheeses. According to the article there is a higher likelihood of producing an inferior product when this biodiversity is killed off and a higher potential for hazards to human health. 

"Biodiversity is a natural armor through the variety of organisms within any habitat, ensuring a healthy, balanced and productive ecosystem."

Sister Noella Marcellino, cheese producer

At a recent public lecture series at Harvard University revered international authority on traditional cheesemaking Sister Noella said the following words of wisdom. 

"They say that one gram of soil contains ten billion micro organisms and perhaps thousands of different species. So what we do is put a cheese in a cave so it can be close to the soil." 

Sister Noella says when cheese are put in a cave at the abbey no culture is added. Instead it relies on the natural lactic acid bacteria and biodiversity in the environment to create a transformation. She assures the audience that this is a natural process. No lactic acid cultures or fungi are added. In the video she travels to France and interviews a French cheesemaker who explains why there are less chance of pathogens in the dairy when the cows are eating a natural diet of pasture. When the animals are heathy, happy and not pushed for milk production this produces milk with all the natural micro organisms of the region. There is a relationship between the method of production and the end product. These micro organisms have enzymes that break down fat and protein and we benefit from the byproducts they produce.

That is what gives the cheese its flavour and consistency. Microbiologist Noella says that testing have shown the cheese caves in France have great microbiological biodiversity in them, even if some of the caves are only three kilometers apart. This biodiversity that have been carefully cultured for hundreds of years by conscious people are more important than many realise. Watch the lecture here.

"The diversity of the local strains of micro organisms in a region contributed to the diversity of cheeses in France. And just as you want to save a certain kind of tree in a rainforest, you want to save the microbes that are part of a region because they are the ones who have contributed to the flavour and special unique character of a cheese. You may not think that these organisms are important but for the French they consider these micro organisms as part of their patrimony."

The microbes are indeed inherited wealth. Sister Noella have been working to bring these unique strains to the United States so that other cheesemakers, like Mateo Kehler from Jasper Hill farm in Vermont can learn and benefit.

Mateo Kehler, cheese producer

In the same video by Harvard University Mateo Kehler talks about the pastoral beauty that is threatened by global economic forces that are far out of control of the people who live in these rural places. He says that for him and his brother Andy they had to reimagine how farmstead cheesemaking would operate in their community. Cheesemaking for them is about developing and revealing their terroir. He says that terroir is a complicated word meaning 'taste of place' but it is so much more in French. It is a word that is loaded with social, cultural and economic considerations.

He says that no two milks are created equally. Milk is very 'place' specific. Factors that influence the terroir include the type of animal, the breed, the individual, the feed, the microbes and environment, the herd management and milk handling and also quantity and quality components. Mateo and Andy produce the world famous Winnimere raw milk cheese. Also see the following three videos about their work and values:  Food Rebel, Food Forward and The Northeast Kingdom.

Where does the milk micro-flora come from?

In the video at time marker 55:24 minutes Mateo describes that the microbial ecology of the raw milk is the sum of the practises on a farm. For example: how you bed your cows, how you feed them, your milking protocols, how you clean your equipment, how you store your milk and how long, the quality of your water, wether employees wash their hands or not etc. 

"We milk cows but what we are really doing is farming microbes. Everything that we do on our farms is really using that idea that we have these practises and they are going to create the microbial ecology that is the foundation of the flavour potential in our cheese. There is a linear correlation between the microbial diversity and complexity of flavour."

At time marker 57:20 minutes Matteo says that testing shows that pasture-fed milk contains surprisingly more microbe diversity than milk produced from feeding hay. If it is a healthy farm with healthy soil most of these microbes are going to be beneficial ones. 

In another video by the American Society for Microbiology Mateo says that about 80% of the microbes in raw milk comes from the outside of the cow's udder. He says there is a lot of research being done, particularly in Europe, on how farming practises create the microbial ecology on the teat of the cow. He feels fortunate that Jasper Hill's cows were part of routine testing to learn how the micro ecology in their barn and cheesemaking facility influences the finished microbiology of their cheeses. Mateo says that their job is to cultivate these microbial communities like you would tend a garden. That is an exercise in consciousness.

Video:  "Terroir" is a French word that has historically been used to describe the geographical features such as climate, soil and topography that lend unique flavor characteristics to a wine. Now, this term is being applied to artisan cheese, underscoring the importance of location in the production of award-winning, handmade cheese. Video by KQED

Bas de Groot, Dutch milk sommelier

Bas de Groot is a self-proclaimed milk sommelier. 

According to this article he says that a milk's terroir cannot be discerned in as much detail as a wine's but he is able to tell the breed of cow and what it has been fed on from just one sip. “If you get cows that are 100 per cent grass fed you get milk that’s a bit fruity in taste, and if you get the maize diet it’s more nutty, more cheesy in a way,” he says. “It also depends on the type of cow – Jersey is really special because it’s really high in fat and protein.”

He recently set the world record for being the World's First Milk Sommelier, according to 

the World Record Academy. Milk is a liquid of serious complexity akin to fine wine. Each taste is treated like a sensory experience worthy of discernment and terroir exploration. 

For Bas it started with a love of production methods when he worked on a biodynamic farm. He loved how it created the products and how they influence different values. It started out as a bit of a joke but now he has become an expert proudly using his title as a milk sommelier. Bas is an ardent milk drinker and has a minimum of a litre of (usually) raw milk each day. Click here to see a short video about his work.

Video:  Milk tastes different on each and every farm. Not only season but the time of the day also matters when it comes to milk. So why every milk from the supermarket taste the same? Holland's first Milk sommelier, Bas de Groot is searching the answer. Video by WhatTheFood

Terroir of raw dairy

The terroir of raw dairy is very important to people who know its true value. This knowledge is often limited to cheesemakers and cheese aficionados. 

Raw cheese was once the norm but no more. Unfortunately raw cheeses are on the disappear. Genuine French Camembert is said to be on the brink of extinction because strict rules around its production have become increasingly difficult to meet. We see the same dilemma in New Zealand where government regulations make it hard to stay in production. In Australia we hear from dairy farmers that it is impossible to step into this market. The few local cheesemakers who now produce raw milk cheeses have to jump through mind boggling hoops and have to charge exorbitant prices.

Strangely, regulations put restrictions on the amount of harmless bacteria allowed in raw milk cheeses (more here). Why do that? Cheesemakers say that these same harmless bacteria are responsible for the flavour and uniqueness that make raw milk cheeses superior to cheese produced on mass scale. These harmless bacteria seem to be part of the natural biodiversity that create a traditional, safe raw milk cheese. Why try to limit them to the point where it becomes burdensome to produce?

Scientists say testing for the numbers of these harmless bacteria are used as a yardstick to indicate "adequate sanitation during processing". Is this practise fair? Cheesemakers in the USA say the 'bacteriological correctness' is not fair. It is better to test only for pathogens (bacteria that are harmful to human health). More here.

A Melbourne researcher says that crucial protective strains of E.coli provide a protective barrier in the gut that prevents growth and colonisation of bad bacteria, because the good bugs take up all the real estate. He says: "E. coli is a key bacterial coloniser needed by our gut." Read more here.

What needs to change?

It will be good if scientists become more open-minded and learn more about the latest science and raw cheesemaking practises.

Consumers need to wake up, realise the value of raw dairy and overcome their fears of publicly showing their support for it. Cheesemakers and dairy farmers want to produce raw dairy products but they need support and they need an aware public.

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