Romancing the Microbe

Cheese fervor in a time of germ anxiety.

“It’s a little like Best in Show” joked California cheese-maker Sue Conley, whose washed-rind triple-crème beauty, Cowgirl Creamery Red Hawk, had just won the American Cheese Society’s top prize. * The annual competition, held last month in San Francisco, was indeed a celebration of the same kind of arcane, all-consuming passion on display in Christopher Guest’s dog show mock-u-mentary.

The contest was part of the American Cheese Society’s 20th annual conference; the organization, dedicated to the promotion of traditionally made cheeses, is riding high right now. American cheese has come into its own, if not fully casting off the shadow of European classics like Roquefort, brie, and Parmigiano Reggiano, then at least finding a place alongside the imports at influential restaurants and cheese shops. Even Daily Candy, the effervescent online fashion and shopping newsletter, provided a link to the Manhattan restaurant/cheese shop Artisanal. There’s something kind of funny about the thought of women in Sigerson Morrison flip flops dishing over the latest stinky soft-rind cheese. But just as peasant blouses made it big a couple of years back, so are peasant cheeses.

Certainly, the quality and availability of American artisan cheeses have steadily improved over the past two decades. Small-scale cheese-makers have tried hard to define themselves against the blandness of plastic-wrapped “commodity” cheese, and specialty-food retailers such as Whole Foods have spread across the country. But the improved inventory doesn’t entirely explain the current popularity of cheese. The Atkins diet, with its validation of high-fat foods, surely has something to do with it. The program has thoroughly undermined the low-fat imperative in American nutrition, even for those who don’t adhere to it. And reports in trades like the Cheese Reporter have suggested that specialty foods like cheese seem to be recession-proof. People may be staying home from restaurants, but when they entertain at home, they still seek status in rustic-chic comestibles like cheese, bread, and wine.

Many cheese consumers have also bought into a certain agrarian romanticism, the sense that farming may be, as Benjamin Franklin asserted, “the only honest way” to make a living. Dairy farming, which implies the care—not the killing—of animals (vegan objections notwithstanding), comes off as especially wholesome. Organizations like Slow Food and publications like Saveur have helped promulgate this notion, profiling traditional food-makers and elevating them to the status of folk heroes. Most Americans aren’t looking to start their own farm, but purchasing a lovely farmstead cheddar makes it possible to nibble on someone else’s salt-of-the-earth nobility.

To convey this sense of agrarian craftsmanship, the food press and retailers have popularized the word “artisan” (as in the French adjective “artisanal”) as a catch-all for food products made in a low-tech, highly skilled manner—crusty breads, homemade jams, small-batch olive oils, and cheeses.Retailers have used the term, often conflating it with the organic label, to coax high prices from conscientious food consumers. But there are no rules comparable to organic standards that allow a product to be called artisanal, which means that big food corporations are already beginning to use the term to describe decidedly uncraftsmanlike products. At the convention, cheese-makers voiced growing concern that the wholesome appeal of craft cheeses might soon be co-opted by the likes of Kraft.

What’s slightly ironic, of course, is that when it comes to cheese, not all of the work is controlled by human hands. Like beer, wine, and sourdough bread, good cheese derives its complexity from the action of microbes—bacteria, yeast, and mold—on milk. One technique and set of cultures will result in a sharp, long-aged cheddar while another will result in a white-rinded, oozy cheese that ripens from the outside in (think camembert and brie). The microbes are usually purchased from “culture houses” that isolate and grow microbes in a laboratory environment, but if you’re really bold and low-tech, you can try to work with microbes already present in the room where the cheese is being made. I’m told that some American cheese-makers, looking to France as the gold standard in cheese-making, have smeared classic French cheeses on the wall of their plants in an effort to introduce the Gallic molds into their operations.

In addition to choosing the microbes, there are a thousand other judgments involved in making good cheese; chief among them is the kind of milk to use. Sheep, goat, or cow? Farmstead or outsourced? Organic or not? Pasture-fed or silage-fed? And, most controversially, pasteurized or raw? Milk must be heated to be pasteurized, and heat unravels proteins, which in turn affects the flavor of the cheese. Cheese made with raw milk is consistently described by cheese aficionados as more “alive” than its pasteurized cousin: The flavor of milk, and thus the cheese, the argument goes, is full of the fragrance of the herd’s food and also full of microflora specific to the farmland. Pasteurizing milk, to make a bad pun, homogenizes its flavor. (There is also the as-yet unproven argument that consuming microflora in raw milk products helps habituate human bodies to microbes and thus boosts immunity.) But the options for selling raw-milk cheeses in this country are limited. By law, unpasteurized cheeses on the market in the United States must have been aged at least 60 days (aging cheese changes its chemistry and makes it less friendly to pathogens). Farmers who make younger cheeses often try to pasteurize their milk in a slower, lower-heat manner in order to disturb its proteins as little as possible. It’s worth noting that a lot of good cheeses are made with pasteurized milk, including the prizewinning Red Hawk.

At the conference, the raw-milk issue was not as pressing as it had been three years ago, when the FDA seemed poised to require all commercial dairy products, even aged ones, to be pasteurized in an effort to prevent food-poisoning outbreaks. Today, there is still a general sense that the right to work with raw milk may be threatened, but serious scientific studies are also being done—at the University of Vermont, for example—that suggest that aged raw-milk cheeses are not inherently more dangerous than pasteurized. The few outbreaks of listeria in aged raw-milk cheeses can be traced to poor handling of cheeses after they left the cheese-maker’s hands.

So, let’s ask the obvious question: Why on earth would fermented foods like cheese be enjoying such a wave of popularity at a time when microbial anxiety is running so high? The threat of bioterrorism lingers in the back of our minds, new diseases like West Nile virus and SARS freak us out, and antibiotics that have kept us healthy for years seem to be losing their efficacy. Perhaps the thought of microbial cultivation, a sort of micro-agriculture, is comforting. Cultivating microbes confers an idea of control: It reassures us that we’ve lived with microbes for a long time and always found a way to manage them.

In a presentation at the cheese conference, Sister Noëlla Marcellino, a cheese-making nun with a doctorate in microbiology, explained how bacteria and fungi in her abbey’s raw-milk cheeses helped not only to develop the flavor of the cheese but also to inhibit the growth of pathogens. Her PowerPoint presentation was delivered with scientific objectivity, and yet I imagined good microbes duking it out with listeria in a microscopic struggle for the soul of the cheese. As long as good cheese is available, it’s a battle that’s won at cocktail parties every day.

Correction: Sept. 8, 2003. This article originally and incorrectly called the American Cheese Society’s winning cheese Cowboy Creamery Red Hawk. The correct name of the cheese is Cowgirl Creamery Red Hawk. (Return to the corrected sentence.)