Obsessed: The Fight for Real Cheese

20170901-etivaz.jpg

A wheel of L'Etivaz. [Photographs: Jon Wyand]

Editor's Note: Welcome back to Obsessed, the interview series in which we talk to uniquely driven amateurs and professionals from all across the food world. We hope to shed light on the passions that inspire enthusiastic food nerds, from home cooks to chefs on the line to veteran butchers, fishmongers, and farmers. Hopefully we'll also pick up some of their favorite tips, tricks, and food wisdom along the way. Know somebody who you think would be perfect for this interview series? Email us!

A couple months ago, I found myself awkwardly milling around the bar at Jimmy's No. 43 in Manhattan's East Village, waiting for a lecture called "Starter Cultures and the Fight for Real Cheese" to begin. I was there more out of a sense of professional obligation than anything else; whatever the fight was, I thought, I wanted no part of it. But I supposed that if there were some rumble brewing over "real cheese," whatever that meant, in this corner of the food world, we at Serious Eats should know about it. To my surprise, an hour and a half later, I was listening with rapt attention to Bronwen and Francis Percival describe how the Danish ruined milk for everyone around the world by refining the pasteurization process in the 19th century so they could sell the British a bunch of bland butter.

The Percivals, who live in London, were in town to create some buzz about the upcoming publication of their book, Reinventing the Wheel: Milk, Microbes, and the Fight for Real Cheese, which releases today (and in which you can read all about, among other things, the Danish and their influence on milk production). Bronwen is the cheese buyer at London's famed Neal's Yard Dairy and the cofounder of MicrobialFoods.org; Francis is a magazine writer focused on food and wine who previously worked for years as a line cook and fishmonger. While I came away from the lecture considerably the wiser about butter, milk, and starter cultures, it was mostly the couple's evident enthusiasm for their subject matter that pushed me to request an advance copy of the book. Only when I opened the book up and began to read did I discover that what I had thought was mere enthusiasm was in fact a kind of revolutionary zeal.

Reinventing the Wheel straddles a number of different categories: It is a primer, a history, a series of ethnographies, and, finally, an attack on much of the received wisdom in the dairy industry. The Percivals take the reader through each stage in the cheese production process, focusing not only on milk and bacterial cultures but also on the breeding and feeding of cows and responsible upkeep of pasturage. Along the way, they make a compelling argument that many cheesemaking traditions, capable of producing some of the most unique cheeses, were neglected or forgotten as industrialization took place at the turn of the 19th century.

The goal for the Percivals is the creation of a space in the cheese market for farmhouse cheeses—cheeses made on farms that produce their own milk. Their idea, at its most basic, is that cheese made from good milk—milk with a naturally high level of microbial diversity—will taste sufficiently different from, and better than, cheeses produced at the industrial scale. They believe these cheeses, what they call "real cheese," should therefore command a higher price at market, which would in turn make their production financially viable. The obstacles to this goal are manifold, they explain, but the primary one is a dearth of understanding about how the many cheeses we eat are made.

I thought they would be perfect subjects for our Obsessed interview series, but also that they might, in their own words, provide Serious Eats readers with a small glimpse of the many subjects they tackle in Reinventing the Wheel. So we're going to do something a little different and let this interview serve as a kind of introduction to their work for readers. It will be followed by a short series from the Percivals on some cheeses that they believe come close to their ideal.

20170901-bronwyn-francis-headshot.jpg

Names: Bronwen and Francis Percival

Ages: 38 and 39, respectively

Website: Real Cheese, MicrobialFoods.org

Twitter: @FAPercival, @BronwenPercival

Instagram: @bronwenpercival

What is "real cheese"?

Bronwen Percival: A real cheese is one that allows us to taste a farming system. It's an expression of farming on different levels, not just of animals, but of plants and microbes as well. We can't taste those things in liquid milk, but when that milk is turned into cheese, it becomes possible to taste those attributes very clearly.

Francis Percival: More than anything, it's an approach, a mentality. The cheesemaking starts with decisions made in the field. Because we define this thing we call "real cheese" relative to farming systems, it requires farmhouse production, which is to say, it requires that the same people who are farming the animals are making the cheese. It's a very different approach from buying in your milk and then adding the flavor and character through the cheesemaking process.

When did it first occur to you, either separately or together, that cheese was a subject worth further exploration and study?

FP: I was very lucky to have had the opportunity to taste a variety of fine wines as I lived next door to Sir John Plumb when I attended university. As I describe in the book, he delighted in giving 19-year-olds tastes of good wines that they would likely never taste again. When I graduated, I knew I wanted to work with food, but I felt I needed to learn more. I had been cooking professionally for five years when I met Bronwen at the Oxford Symposium on Food & Cookery. Even then, I was significantly ignorant about cheese. As her other half, I was really forced to learn the mechanics of how cheesemaking works, and I was brought into contact with cheesemakers and dairy farmers, and the issues they were facing, by extension.

BP: I'm very lucky to work at Neal's Yard Dairy. The job of buyer is so much more than just stock control. My role involves tasting and selecting batches on the farms, and as part of that, there is a constant conversation with our producers. In the UK, over the course of the 20th century, we managed almost completely to destroy the institutions and infrastructures of expertise. So, a lot of my job is just looking for answers to questions. Factory cheese is very different from farm cheese, and the main question we are trying to address is: How do we rediscover or re-create a working knowledge of the mechanics of farmhouse cheesemaking? Even just a decade ago, there was a virtual consensus that cheesemaking was simply what you did to milk, this very standardized raw material that was transformed by the magic that occurs in the cheesemaking vat. What distinguished farm cheese was only that it was made on a smaller scale, by hand. Today, we've totally broken away from that viewpoint. Our view has become a lot broader. We still need to understand the make: How can we coax the full potential out of the milk, and allow it to express itself fully rather than covering it up by insensitive methods? But—and this is the part we'd barely imagined—how do you produce milk that actually has something interesting to say? Fresh milk tastes milky, but making cheese has the capacity to reveal its latent characteristics. Without any lab equipment, it's possible to make something that explores the good milk's latent chemical and microbiological potential. That potential is determined by the way the milk is produced.

A French cheese consultant friend of ours makes great show of describing milk that's been stripped of its microbial potential as "dead" milk: The chemicals used during the milking process to sanitize the animals' teats obliterate all the interesting and useful microbes and, in some cases, carry that antimicrobial capacity into the milk itself, preventing it from souring. The milk might well be raw, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's bringing anything to the flavor of the cheese.

Old, traditional approaches to farming are just as forgotten as old cheesemaking techniques—if not more so. And they're just as important in determining the way the cheese tastes.

I know that Bronwen has a master's in anthropology; to what degree is your interest in this subject anthropological?

BP: I think it's fascinating, but it's not really the point. Farmhouse cheeses aren't worthy of protection because they're curiosities that somehow survived; they are interesting because they're more economically and environmentally relevant than ever before. Attending progressive food events, a lot of people are very down on "agribusiness." But that's already a fundamental misunderstanding; small-scale cheesemakers are agribusinesses, and, in many ways, they have the capacity to serve as a model for how environmentally and socially sustainable food production might look in the future. Reinventing the Wheel is more of a dispatch from the front lines about changing an industry.

FP: It's also interesting to look at the subject cross-culturally. France and Italy place great value on small farmers. Their government institutions aren't just sponsoring microbiology and chemistry research to support farmhouse cheese production, but they also contextualize it with the work of anthropologists and sociologists. They are trying to answer the question: How can we get maximum value out of our scientific research and encourage people to implement it effectively? But they're missing an important piece. Unfortunately, there is the conviction in much of southern Europe that you can't change a market, that price is not a variable over which the producer has any control. But that's not very interesting, either, from the perspective of incentivizing the growth of an industry.

In fact, this is the covenant of high-end food: I, the customer, am willing to pay more money, but in return I also expect that you—the producer—are going to give me an amazing, unique experience that's worth the higher price tag. Now, what's missing, and what we're trying to do in the book, is to start that conversation. We are trying to give people the tools to recognize certain flavors, and understand and appreciate where those flavors come from and what they mean and why they could cost more.

That doesn't mean that we're talking about magical flavor molecules that are the instant hallmark of quality. If we think about a more developed market, like wine, the three characteristics that are most prized by highly engaged enthusiasts are complexity, harmony, and uniqueness. Exactly the same is potentially true of cheese. It sounds like a bit of a politician's answer, frustratingly unspecific, but we need to consider the experience of tasting these cheeses (or these wines) as a holistic thing. Then it's up to the consumer to decide: Are they willing to pay the real price for that experience?

20170901-cows-grazing.jpg

Can you talk about how the book and your interests seem to sit at a confluence of a variety of different disciplines? And is that something that is intrinsic to cheese, or even unique to cheese?

FP: If you dive deep within any industry and poke around, you're inevitably going to come up with a hodgepodge of different sorts of knowledge, from all different disciplines. On a superficial level, it's easy to write about anything as if it's discrete. But once you pop open the hood of the car and start poking around, it becomes clear pretty quickly that everything is interconnected.

BP: Exactly. For instance, we can look at cheesemaking as fermentation, or managing microbial ecology, and so we need to know about the microbiological side of things to understand how the process works. But then, we remember that cheesemaking was done for thousands of years before anyone knew about microbes, so we have to look into how premodern cheesemakers understood the process. And, more to the point of our book, we have tried to figure out how our understanding of microbes and ability to measure acidity fundamentally changed the way we make cheese, and changed the taste of the cheeses themselves.

Sticking with the idea of cheese as being solely about managing microbial ecology, we can also look in a different direction: public health and food regulation. When we look at data on absolute risk, it's clear that the way cheese is regulated is based on a grotesque overestimate of the risk of eating raw-milk cheese. Raw-milk cheeses aged less than 60 days are illegal to sell within the USA, but other fresh foods with a similar degree of absolute risk, like salad leaves, are totally normative. How can this be? In attempting to answer this question, we find ourselves exploring how consumers and regulators interpret facts differently based on their own preexisting values, drawing on the fields of psychology and law, and thinking about ways that we can break down those barriers and move those conversations forward.

When did your fascination with cheese evolve into a fascination with "real cheese"?

BP: When I visit cheesemakers to select cheeses to buy, I might taste 40 to 60 batches of cheese. I receive samples all the time from new cheesemakers who want us to sell their cheese. It's a totally different way of eating cheese than when I was just a normal customer, who enjoyed eating cheese perhaps a couple of times a week in the context of a meal or as a snack. When you are eating that much cheese, you start to see patterns you wouldn't otherwise. For me, it slowly started to become obvious that the cheeses were all starting to taste the same. It culminated one week, when I'd agreed to meet with two fairly new producers and taste their cheese and give them some feedback. One visited on a Monday, and the other one on a Wednesday, and it was like déjà vu: The cheeses they brought me to try were almost indistinguishable from one another. They were blue cheeses of about the same size, from the milk of two different farms—one was raw, one pasteurized. They both just tasted of commercial blue mold spores. Tiny batch sizes, made by hand, who cares...both could easily have come from a massive factory. It was so depressing!

FP: If anything, it's been a process of self-radicalization. If people follow the production-side advice that's being given, it's possible to make entirely competent and thoroughly boring cheese. Where are the cheeses that are doing something unique? We aren't necessarily talking about big, aggressive, wild, stinky cheeses; those flavors are actually pretty easy to achieve, and they can be just as monotonous and boring. But it's possible to make cheeses that have nuance and delicacy. They are amazing because they do something different. They may not shout the loudest, but they have something interesting to say.

Could you summarize your main issues with "non-real" cheese?

FP: Unreal cheese! Fake cheese! I think one of the most important things to acknowledge is that most cheeses available in the supermarket are still cheese, and made using essentially the same process as our so-called real cheese. It's like a literary novel versus an airport thriller: Both are books, but one revels in the use of language and deeper meaning, and the other helps to pass some time on the plane. It's even clearer when we think about movies. "Unreal" cheeses are the equivalent of a big summer blockbuster: They rely upon post-production tricks and spectacle to create something that doesn't demand much of your thought.

BP: This isn't about moralizing. People, as much as they can, should eat their values. Our problem right now is mainly with the market itself. A lot of these cheeses, whether they're made on farms or in factories, are bought and sold without a full disclosure of where they come from. As it's set up right now, the cheese industry makes it difficult to get answers to anything but the most basic questions. The things I want to see more transparency about are provenance and integrity of production. At the most basic level, I want to see more of a distinction between farmhouse cheeses, where the cheesemaker owns the animals, and ones that are made from bought-in milk, and I want consumers to understand why that's important. There's a lot of talk about whether cheeses are "handmade" and "artisan," but those terms are totally undefined and obscure the real differences that mean something.

FP: Just last month, an experienced journalist asked us if "farmhouse" meant small-scale hand production. If a professional commentator doesn't have that conceptual clarity, what hope is there for the consumer?

The "wine snob" is this greatly derided figure, and for good reason, but the great thing about wine is that it has a community of consumers who have trenchant beliefs about what quality looks like. And at the engaged end, these consumers are technically capable of associating the flavor in the glass with the winemaking decisions that went into making it. And until we get to that place with cheese, producers and factories are going to get away with telling people stories that don't hold up.

What's wrong with the big, sweet flavors of cheeses made from industrial starter cultures?

FP: They are absolutely fine, as long as you are happy with the edifice of modern industrial dairying. Because cheeses made in this way taste so heavily of the act of processing, the origins of the raw materials no longer matter. You can get them made from entirely admirable farming. But if you taste those next to the super-cheap, down-and-dirty cheeses made from mass-produced milk, and they taste the same, it's impossible to argue that spending that extra money for the farmhouse product is rational. Spending according to your values is great, but spending for something you believe in and getting something more than a nice story in return is even better.

20170901-cheddar-curd.jpg

Cheddar curd.

How would you characterize the average cheese consumer's understanding of the cheesemaking process?

BP: There's a That Mitchell and Webb Look sketch that captures it.

FP: This is entirely the fault of the cheesemaking industry. Most consumers have a vague awareness of rennet, but no understanding or comprehension of the fermentation aspect, or the concentration aspect: You're removing a lot of moisture to make cheese. These are the bits that are completely alien. Cheese is a familiar food that's also remote and mysterious.

It occurred to me while reading your book that even those who understand how cheese is produced would be unaware of some of what you describe, in terms of the history of certain industrial processes, or husbandry methods, or massive innovations like silage. Do you think that a little cheese knowledge could be a dangerous thing? Put another way, do you think that the relatively recent boom in interest in cheesemaking and its processes has paradoxically been detrimental in any way to some types of cheese?

FP: The world is enormously complicated. Our book is long and complicated, and it only touches on some of the key issues. At the end of the day, any knowledge is better than none. Of course, some aspects of contemporary cheese culture are silly and detrimental, just like other parts of our modern food culture. You can see it clearly in social media. Everyone loves a photo of an oozy cheese. And making an oozy cheese is pretty easy to do, and easy to communicate. Looking in from outside, it seems novel and attractive. Where everything is driven by the photo you can post, it's more and more difficult to root the conversation in the flavor and integrity of the cheese.

BP: Any attempt to convey quality according to a single variable is by its very nature a massive simplification. If only it were just a simple one-factor solution: People want that magic bullet. We joke that Reinventing the Wheel is like a diet book that tells people how to lose a moderate amount of weight over a fairly long time by eating less and exercising more. But that's how you get real change, through an accumulation of incremental advantages that ultimately takes you to a different place. Your first step might be understanding what is happening with the microbes; the next might be understanding how the use of inorganic nitrogen fertilizers affects field-level biodiversity, which then leads you to look at the breed of cow and examine which animals are suitable for different systems. Yes, this is astonishingly complex, but it is knowable and manageable, and to change it we have to adjust and evolve the system as a whole.

Do you two have any aspirations to make cheese of your own, using all that you've learned, along the lines of the model you espouse? If not, why not? Even if you don't, would you be willing to sketch out your own ideal setup, from the breed of the cows to the type of cheese(s) you'd want to produce?

FP: This is one of the great discussions of our marriage. I'm a city boy, not a natural at animal husbandry, to say the least. But there is power in being a practitioner. We see this most when we visit wine producers, those rugged iconoclasts who lead the way and define what a region can be; they're the producers, not the commentators.

BP: Of course, it is impossible not to daydream. There are some very exciting projects that need to be done. First, we would need a farm; not just any farm but one that hadn't been brutalized by modern agricultural "improvements." There are some old farms out there where, for whatever reason, people haven't turned to fertilizers or plowed their fields mercilessly, and you find this tremendous biodiversity: hay meadows full of wildflowers and aromatic herbal leas. They aren't very productive farms, but they make up for it in sheer interest. Then add in some cows with unusual genetics: an old local breed that looks more like a beef animal than dairy. Maybe I'd look to collaborate with an academic geneticist to recover a lost breed that was once used for cheese in the area, like Somerset Sheeted cattle, or milking Devons, or the Suffolk Dun. And then, to set about making a cheese that takes its inspiration from records left from the 19th century, entirely without commercial inoculants: a cheddar that is "close and firm in texture, yet mellow in character or quality; it is rich with a tendency to melt in the mouth, the flavour full and fine, approaching to that of a hazelnut." Or a silky-soft Wensleydale with delicate natural bluing and a texture that is soft and spreadable. That might be fun.

What do you think are the biggest obstacles to more widespread adoption of practices that would produce cheese of the type you hold out as ideal? Is it simply the price consumers are willing to pay?

BP: Once again, it's multifactorial. Price is certainly a part of it. Right now, the price for even the best cheese hardly makes it worth a cheesemaker's while to do things with total integrity. That has to change. Then there are the regulatory obstacles; I don't think they're insurmountable. Science is catching up to and validating the practice, and cheesemakers are getting better at interfacing with the scientific community.

FP: Another challenge is that where you don't have the infrastructures, where the communities of farmhouse cheesemakers and all the associated support structures have disappeared, you're reliant on having the remarkable individuals who are capable of reinventing the wheel, living out this narrative of triumph over hardship. It would be great to be in a position to re-create some of those clusters of expertise. In some other industries, that's exactly what is happening. Think of it in the field of athletics: In 1996, Britain won a single gold medal at the Olympics, but by 2016, as a result of policy decisions and smart spending, we'd ascended to second in the medals table. All it took was structured state investment with a specific goal. Cultural changes are driven by policy decisions. Why invest in cheese? If you want to revitalize rural communities in steep economic decline, investing in that sort of knowledge and expertise is not such a strange idea.

20170901-cows-grazing-landscape.jpg

What kind of advice would you give to someone who would like to support cheese of that type?

BP: Ask tough, awkward questions when you buy cheese. Cheesemongers are a great resource, and if they don't have the answers at hand, they will be able to go out and find them for you. Taste before you buy, and embrace the idea of batch variation: It's totally reasonable to expect consistency of quality, but don't expect consistency of flavor, which can only be achieved by stripping away the variables.

FP: Depending on where you are, hopefully you have access to a great cheesemonger, but the internet is also a great resource. You can buy real cheese online from a specialist if you don't have access in a brick-and-mortar environment.

What are some things people should look for when assessing a cheesemonger—what are the signs of a trustworthy and good cheesemonger?

FP: It's simple: Look for not too many cheeses, all in great condition. The best cheesemongers have a carefully chosen, limited selection through which they move quickly. Every piece on the counter should be in great condition, should look like something you'd be happy to take home. And make sure they give you a taste, and cut to order. The moment a piece of cheese is cut and wrapped, it starts to dry out; even worse if it's wrapped in plastic, because the cheese can taste like plastic.

BP: Every cheese in the selection should deserve its place there. In theory, you should be able to go into a great cheese shop and choose something at random and walk out with a great cheese. In the next five years, I want to see more thought-provoking displays, things that will challenge people and start a conversation or an argument: I want to visit the cheese shop equivalent of the record store in High Fidelity. Where is the cheese shop that only sells cheeses made by farmers?

What's your favorite cheese to eat?

BP: When I started working with cheese, I loved sweet, crystalline Goudas, and powerful cheddars, and oozy, soft cheeses. And it's funny, because those are not the cheeses that I gravitate toward these days.

FP: My favorite cheeses are those with a subtle dynamic range, where you can actively taste nuance. These are delicate cheeses: great farmhouse Saint-Nectaire; Reblochon; milky, gentle Dales-style cheeses. They have rounded, mellow flavors that retain a profoundly lactic sense of the milk, but add savory, yeasty, fruity complexity.

BP: I should add that, when we're talking about Dales-style cheeses, we're not talking about modern, mass-produced versions that taste like sharp, lemony acidity, with a rough, sawdust-y texture. Classic British styles have the capacity to be totally mellow, milky, savory, and refreshing, and so, so complex. On a good day, cheeses like Kirkham's Lancashire are amongst my very favorites. There are several cheeses in the early stages of commercial development right now that I believe are going to take this style of cheese to the next level, to really show what they can do. I think minds are going to be blown.

Do you think that some of the information you provide in the book would be useful for those who either make cheese at home or aspire to?

FP: I hope so—but in the same way as a book about wine might for someone who wanted to make wine at home. Hopefully, we show what's possible, and what is impossible, to do at home. Home cheesemaking is an excellent way of understanding the decisions that go into something and seeing their impact firsthand.

BP: And in some circumstances, it will be possible for people to make amazing cheese at home. I'm thinking back to when I was milking goats in my backyard as a teenager, which we describe in more detail in the book. I never got beyond the cheap cheesemaking kit; the cheese I made was pretty disgusting. I hope the information in Reinventing the Wheel would be genuinely of interest to someone in that situation, to help her recognize the potential that's right in front of her.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.