Sunday, February 06, 2011

Bacteria Farmers

At a conference last week discussing how to differentiate Wisconsin cheese through "taste of place" (the U.S. version of French "terroir"), I heard quite possibly the best description that could ever be given to a cheesemaker.

Bacteria farmer.

The title rolled off the tongue of Ivan Larcher, a French cheesemaker and consultant, who via Skype from France, provided a 45-minute talk encouraging raw milk cheesemakers interested in crafting cheeses that reflect the flavors of their farms to also start cultivating their own starter cultures.

"Every farm is a unique microbial ecosystem, evolving with seasons and agricultural activity," Larcher says. "If you pasteurize the milk, you destroy the bacteria and then you have to work harder to recover the flavor. So I encourage you to think of yourself as a bacteria farmer - concentrate on farming your bacteria just as much as farming your land."

In Wisconsin, the majority of cheesemakers purchase starter cultures from commercial "culture houses" - think of it as a mail-order catalog where if you want to make Cheddar, you buy a starter culture for Cheddar, or if you want to make Swiss, you buy a starter culture for Swiss. But in Europe, many cheesemakers have cultivated their own starter cultures, using bacteria from their own land, and have then passed these starter cultures down through generations of cheesemakers (similar to the starter cultures used to make sourdough bread).

Larcher's talk was just one of several fascinating points of the half-day conference, which encouraged Wisconsin cheesemakers to start thinking about how they might start to market their cheese as "taste of place" - particularly those in the Driftless region (encompassing the non-glaciated one-third of southern and western Wisconsin that is home to rolling hills, limestone-filtered water and sweet soils).

The conference highlight was hearing from Gigi Cazaux, who has been working with Wisconsin raw milk cheesemakers for the past year. Her Master Degree's thesis on the subject of whether Wisconsin raw milk cheese may constitute its own brand of "terroir", is due to be completed by the end of the month.

Gigi gave some tantalizing sneak peaks into what her research will reveal. For example, she surveyed 22 cheesemakers in Wisconsin who produce raw milk cheeses and learned that 16 of them live in the Driftless region. Of those 16 cheesemakers, 15 use milk directly from farms that rotationally-graze their cows, which means the majority of raw milk cheese being made in the state is also grass-based. And, of those 15 cheesemakers, 14 have all the stages of production in their immediate area, including the milk source, creamery, and aging cellar.

Having so many cheesemakers in one distinct region of Wisconsin, all using grass-based milk, may provide an avenue for these cheese companies to consider marketing their product as a "taste of place" product, similar to an AOC-accredited cheese from France, Cazaux says.

"Cheese in Wisconsin is an iconic and cultural object, an authentic element of the state heritage that brings people together, Cazaux said. "You have the heritage - more than 160 years of cheesemaking in the state - as well as the marketing capacity to make it happen. I think this is potentially a very exciting project for the cheesemakers of Wisconsin."

Of course no cheese conference is complete without actually eating cheese, and the day ended on a high note with a tasting led by Tori Miller, Executive Chef and co-owner of L'Etoile and Graze Restaurant in Madison. Of the eight cheeses we tried, four of them - Dunbarton Blue, Bleu Mont Bandaged Cheddar, Bleu Mont Alpine Renegade and Uplands' Pleasant Ridge Reserve - were all semi-hard cheeses made in the Driftless region, and each had a distinctly, yet similar pineapple-y, nutty taste with a complex finish. Those similarities were not lost on cheesemaker Chris Roelli, who sat next to me.

"Ivan is telling us something we have known for a long time," said Roelli, a fourth-generation Wisconsin cheesemaker from Shullsburg, "and it has started to gain traction in this business." Microbes from the air, water and soil all play a role, he says, in the flavor a cheese develops.

"I am a firm believer that what is in the air, the water and the earth in your particular area greatly influences the flavor of cheese. The minerals in the earth are in the grass that's eaten by the cow, and we take her milk and make it into cheese, and that taste progresses from the ground to the consumer," Chris said.

Sounds to me like Chris Roelli is well on his way to becoming a bacteria farmer. It will be interesting to see if he and other raw-milk cheesemakers begin to associate their product with the Driftless region of Wisconsin. 

4 comments:

Sarah said...

Thanks for the great post.

Paul said...

Great post. Willi Lehman's "earth schmear" is precisely the subject of this post - bacterial culture isolated out from his land, and propagated for use on this cheese. It's outstanding, as are all his cheeses.

wine said...

I love the idea of an AOC-like designation! Let's talk about how that could proceed.

Culinary Pen said...

That's a fantastic post! Good things continue to happen with "American Cheese."