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Cheese Cultures

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Cheese is carefully rotted milk, an ancient domestication of microbial activities for human consumption. Humans work in concert with communities of bacteria and fungi to produce the hundreds of different kinds of cheeses, flavored by the metabolic excretions of microbes eating the sugars, proteins, and fats in the milk. The ecologies of cheese provide a fascinating model to explore the systems biology of microbial communities–like the work of Rachel Dutton and Ben Wolfe–as well as the social and political “ecologies of production” that go into making cheeses, both industrial and artisanal, today.

Anthropologist Heather Paxson’s excellent new book, The Life of Cheese: Crafting Food and Value in America explores the microbiopolitics of cheese production and the macropolitics of culture, economics, and policy of artisanal foods. Through participant observation in small dairy farms in Vermont, Wisconsin, and California, Paxson highlights the work that goes into making and marketing handcrafted, artisanal cheese, a “post-pastoral” and “post-Pasteurian” product that blurs the boundaries between nature and culture, urban and rural, production and consumption, and “itself exemplifies cultured nature, the product of human skill working in concert with the natural agencies of bacteria, yeasts, and molds to transform a fluid made by ruminant animals.”

Handcrafted cheese brings the symbiotic practices of cheesemaking “back to the future,” reintroducing techniques that have been marginalized and largely eliminated during the modernization of industrial agriculture and food production over the past century. Through artisanal cheese, producers and consumers challenge these industrial imperatives, leading to diverse and exuberant cheeses and cheese-consumption. Historian of science Steven Shapin discusses similar tensions that industrialization of cheese has brought to French cheese cultures in a review of Camembert: A National Myth for the London Review of Books. Laws governing food safety and the economics of industrial efficiency and product consistency transformed the local production of Camembert to a centralized and highly mechanized factory process:

Robots with 20 arms now mimic traditional human actions, assuring hygiene and dependability, and, of course, reducing cost: the skilled women have largely disappeared from present-day Norman factories, the five largest of which turn out about 1.5 million Camemberts a day, employing a workforce of fewer than 500. ‘No cheese here has been touched by human hands,’ the manager of one of these factories boasts.

In handcrafted cheese, human hands are a crucial part of the process, contributing to the slow food goodness of the final product. Paxson relates a very different story of cheese production to that of the robotic Camembert factory:

Rather than follow a preprogrammed procedure, artisan cheesemakers reach into the vat, thrusting fingers into coagulating curd to ascertain when it is ready to be cut and drained from the whey. Artisanal manufacture represents an extension of the craftsperson’s body into the productive process rather than its replacement by computer-programmed machinery.

For other artisan cheese makers, hands aren’t important only for their interaction with the physical properties of the curd, but also for the potential microbial contribution of the human skin. A 2008 New York Times article quotes a Spanish cheesemaker on the importance of her hands to her cheese’s flavor:

“The reason my cheese is so delicious,” said Ms. Amieva, without a trace of modesty, “is my hands.” She turned her meaty, callused palms over for inspection. “The natural bacteria in my skin makes the cheese more flavorful.”

Stirring Cheese Curds--Photo by Rachel Dutton

The connections between the skin and cheese, both in ecologies of production and ecologies of microbes, was the primary inspiration for my project with Sissel Tolaas for Synthetic Aesthetics. Paxson’s earlier work on the microbiopolitics of human and microbial cultures in raw milk cheese (PDF) also had a huge influence on us as we made our own cheeses from microbes cultured from our own skin. In The Life of Cheese, Paxson looks further at how a new awareness of the microbial inhabitants of cheese is contributing to the production and identity of artisanal cheeses.

Cheese Microscopy

Cheese SEM from Rachel Dutton and the Harvard Microbial Sciences Initiative

Microbiologists and cheesemakers are increasingly interested in the microbial inhabitants of local environments and the unique communities that shape a place and its cheeses. Microbial terroir emphasizes the importance of the unique biological geography of a place, using the identity of microbes to craft an identity for a brand of cheese. While the microbial similarities of cheeses from different regions are often more striking than their differences (like the similarities between cheese and skin microbes), identifying cheeses through their bacteria is a fascinating way to get to know the microbes in our lives. Microbial knowledge can add to notions of healthfulness, like the probiotic Lactobacillus that curdles milk, or to the romantic image of a cheese, like the Brachybacterium Rachel Dutton found in the rind a Vermont cheese, “an unusual microbe that has been found in Arctic sea ice, on human skin, and in an Etruscan tomb.”

Microbial Terroir--Ben Wolfe

Terroir is of course much more than just microbes. The epigraph to Paxson’s fascinating chapter on place and taste is from Brad Kessler’s Goat Song, and shows how tightly the idea of terroir is tied to artisanal cheesemaking: “Every raw-milk cheese is an artifact of the land; it carries the imprint of the earth from which it came. A cheese–even a fresh chèvre–is never just a thing to put in your mouth. It’s a living piece of geography. A sense of place.” Creating and cultivating a sense of place for American artisanal cheesemakers means not just the microbiology, geography, and climate of the land, but importantly, the ethics of the farm’s practices, from the stewardship and maintenance of the land to the working conditions for farm employees. Paxson shows how the ethics of food and eating become embedded in the taste of good cheeses through the story of her experiences at a craft cheese tasting:

[The cheese makers] went on to describe [the] newly installed methane digester, apparently without worry that we would register suggestive hints of manure in the odor and taste of the cheese. Instead, we were meant to taste the goodness of greenhouse gas mitigation. Something is happening here to taste education…

Why does cheese taste good? It is not merely because cheese is a food rich in fat and salt, nor even that well-made artisanal cheese reflects the taste of clean milk, healty animals, and fresh pastures. The festival’s taste education suggested that consumer enjoyment of a cheese can be heightened by knowing that the methods of its fabrication helped to accomplish other ends as well–in keeping agricultural land out of the hands of developers, or in the organic remediation of industrially damaged land, or in ssutaining the ability of a fourth generation to continue farming as a family. Here, eaters with “good taste” are enjoined to taste the social place of a “good” cheese–or, perhaps, the “goodness” of a place-based cheese.

The ethics and politics of locally produced foods, of organic agriculture, of American farmstead or imported raw-milk cheeses are all symbols of a very privileged kind of eating, but with their own challenges and their own complex cultural contexts. The Life of Cheese shows us that “All commodities have biographies or ‘social lives’ of production. In finished commodities, these backstories are obscure to consumers. In the place of labor and indirect costs, new stories are written for commodity goods through corporate branding and marketing.” Moreover, uncovering the many complex practices of artisanal cheesemakers, both in cultivating microbes and cultivating a sense of place, shows that “‘nature’ as we know it is clearly a product of human activity,” that “industrial ecologies of cheese production are no more or less ‘natural’ than farmstead ecologies; they are differently cultured.” There is no single “right” way to produce food, no single ideal of “natural” food, but The Life of Cheese is one way to better understand that food is never just a thing to put in your mouth.

Christina Agapakis About the Author: Christina Agapakis is a biological designer who blogs about biology, engineering, engineering biology, and biologically inspired engineering. Follow on Twitter @thisischristina.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Heimdall 5:24 pm 12/19/2012

    “The reason my cheese is so delicious…is my hands. The natural bacteria in my skin makes the cheese more flavorful.”

    So if she uses the toilet and doesn’t bother to properly wash her hands, we get the full load in the cheese. O…M…G!!

    And if she uses her feet? Ewwwww!

    Well, at least now I (and **all** my friends, acquaintances, members of my fraternal and civic organizations, et al) know what we’re getting with these “artisanal” cheeses. Seems that it’s quite a bit more than we thought.

    It’s certainly good to know what artisanal REALLY means for cheese.

    Link to this
  2. 2. Heimdall 5:42 pm 12/19/2012

    Hey Allyn, spam much?

    Link to this
  3. 3. Heimdall 5:44 pm 12/19/2012

    As a general comment, it’s really too bad that there’s no way on this website to have spamcrap removed!

    Link to this
  4. 4. littleredtop 5:47 pm 12/19/2012

    I’m concerned about workers making hand made cheeses while having severe yeast infections and passing those infections along to cheese lovers who consume their cheeses. While their skin bacteria may add to the artisanal flavor, it isn’t worth having a long and miserable bout with a yeast infection.

    Link to this
  5. 5. Christina Agapakis in reply to Christina Agapakis 6:10 pm 12/19/2012

    Spam has been deleted, usually it gets caught with our filters but sometimes gets through!

    And I didn’t address it in this review but the book extensively documents the safety procedures and regulations involved in artisanal cheesemaking in the US and importation of cheese made abroad. The majority of the work involved in cheese production is actually in sterilizing and cleaning hands, equipment, cheese rooms and milking parlors, etc. These practices protect the cheese from bacteria that can spoil the flavor and protects consumers from more dangerous bacteria sneaking in to the cheese. There is very strong regulatory oversight intended to protect consumers from harmful bacteria and yeasts, some of which can be in conflict with some of the best practices as seen by artisan cheesemakers, in particular around mandatory aging periods. In response to littleredtop, Paxson actually does talk specifically about regulation and practices around sick leave for employees to prevent any contamination of cheeses. I strongly recommend reading Paxson’s earlier essay ( for more information about the regulation of raw milk cheese production.

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  6. 6. YoavPerry 1:20 am 12/20/2012

    Heimdall, littleredtop – I had a feeling when I read the article that that line would go misunderstood and attract germophobic responses, because not many people understand the role of microbes, bacteria, fungi and yeasts in our natural fermented foods and the fact that microbes make 10% of your body weight. It’s everywhere. Cheese is an immensely complex microbial product. As cheese ages, bacteria, fungi and yeast can create acids in it, breakdown fats and proteins to create flavors, aromas and textures. The art if cheesemaking is really about commanding and controlling armies of microbes to craft a desired flavor/texture/aroma/appearance combination. To that end, human hands are no stranger to cheese and have been participating in the process for thousands of years prior to the invention of the latex glove. Indeed, species like micrococci that are found on human skin are commonly found to be in cheese. (but cheesemakers prefer to get lab-grown micrococci cultures these days because they are very easy to get and are predictable and safe). Pathogens don’t survive very well in cheese. This is one of the reason it has been considered a safe “spoiled” food for thousands of years. In fact, even in the US, the law with raw milk is that 60 days of aging can replace pasteurization because it is safe to assume everything is dead in the cheese at that point (Including stuff that is far worst than what bathroom bacteria). If anything, it is well established that the more biodiversity exist in cheese, the safer it is from contamination.

    In fact, the point of some of these studies is to decipher -not how a single specie affect cheese or acts when isolated in a petery dish, but rather how do entire communities of species co-habitat in the cheese environment and interact with each other and what effect does it have on cheese.

    But what I find absurd is that your cheeses are made from the milk of a cow, sheep or goat. This product is an entire production based on the digestion system of the animal and using the bacteria from the body of the animal. So in other words, bacteria from some cow living in feces and never taking a shower is somehow approved, yet natural micrococci from human hands which we all have in our bodies is discussting? Think about it. By the way, those beautiful rinds on cheeses that make up so much of the cheese character are yeasts and fungi that comes from the milk too, as well as from plants, trees, soil and air. Most of it is extremely beneficial to your body too. The notion that everything wild, fermented, moldy or otherwise too-natural = danger is a modern cognitive distortion from a generation that learned to recognize food as mass-manufactured packaged goods from industrial conglomerates who care about scalability and bottom lines. While I don’t rely on body bacteria to fabricate my own cheese, I certainly would prefer traditional hand made cheese any day over the suspicious industrially manufactured sanitized “cheeses” out there.

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  7. 7. royniles 4:37 pm 12/21/2012

    “Microbial knowledge can add to notions of healthfulness, ”
    Don’t forget that this involves the knowledge of the microbe as well as of our own.

    Link to this

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