Thursday, March 07, 2013

The Science Behind Alpine Cheeses

Photo courtesy of Gastronomichael.blogspot.com
Following up on a Wisconsin report expected to be published later this month that concludes there are "quantified differences in color, texture, melting points and other attributes" between pasture-fed and conventional dairy products, an Italian study has taken it one step further, determining there are scientific differences in cheeses made between different high-altitude Alpine grass pastures, resulting in different flavor profiles of well-known Alpine cheeses.

The study, published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry,  confirms that not only does pasture-grazed cheese taste different than cheese made from the milk of non-grazing cows, the cheeses made from cows grazing on two different sides of a mountain can contain enough different chemical compounds to affect the cheese's flavor.

The revelation comes courtesy of Giovanna Contarini, a food chemist at the Centro di Ricerca per le Produzioni Foraggere e Lattiero-Casearie (a dairy and crops research center in Lodi, Italy). Recently, she conducted an experiment in which she took milk from cows living on two sides of a mountain in northern Italy. Both pastures consisted primarily of fescue and bent grass, but each received different amounts of sunshine, and from different directions. One pasture also had bit more yarrow growing in it than the other.

Milk from cows grazing in each pasture was then used to make dozens of wheels of the local cheese specialty: Asiago. When Contarini and her team analyzed the cheeses, they found they differed in the amounts of hydrocarbons and transfatty acids. In addition, both grass-based cheese batches contained more terpenes than cheeses made from the milk of non-grazing cows.

Terpenes are chemical compounds typically found in the milk of mountain-pastured cows and come from flowers growing among the grass. "In the plains cows, you don't find any terpenes," Contarini said in an interview with National Public Radio last month. Scientists aren't sure whether terpenes affect cheese flavor, but they do consider them a marker of mountain cheese.

Contarini confirmed that where cows live changes what they eat - and that difference is detectable in the cheese made from their milk.

"In the mountain areas, the cows are free to pasture," Contarini told NPR. They eat mostly a mix of fresh grasses and other vegetation. Cattle raised at lower elevations in Italy are kept in farms and eat a prepared feed that contains some dried grasses and some fat and vitamins. "Consequently, the rumen digestion is different," she said.

Contarini's research may one day be used to prove whether some traditional cheeses, such as bra d'alpeggio or Formai de Mut dell'Ata Valle Brembana, are indeed made with only the milk of mountain-grass grazing cows. The practice of making summer mountain cheeses is a dying art in northern Italy, Contarini said.

"Young people don't want to stay in the mountain because there are poor opportunities for work," so they often move to the city, she says. If there's no one left in the mountains to raise the cows and make the cheese, she says: "We risk losing an important product."

To taste two authentic European Alpine cheeses and two Wisconsin Alpine-style cheeses, sign up now to attend the  May 14 Alpine Style Cheeses: The Taste of Terroir class, led by Jeanne Carpenter at the Firefly Coffeehouse in Oregon. Attendees will learn why cheeses made in the mountain regions of France and Switzerland taste different than cheeses made elsewhere, and compare them to Wisconsin Alpine-style cheeses. Visit www.wicheeseclass.com to sign up now, as all classes sell out in advance.
Photo by Uriah Carpenter

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