Call them by their name: raw milk cheeses denied their identity

03 Oct 2023

“I have given you my soul; leave me my name!” cries John Proctor at the end of Arthur Miller’s 1953 play The Crucible, refusing to sign a confession that would spare him from a death sentence for witchcraft.

Perhaps it’s a stretch, but we can see some parallels with the plight of raw milk cheesemakers who, in refusing to pasteurize their milk, are excluded from a Protected Designation of Origin: this can be a death sentence for producers, too. Thankfully, there are still cheesemakers across Europe who continue to resist, by making their cheeses the old-fashioned way, despite having lost the right to call their cheeses by their rightful names.

Among them are several famous cases which have been rallying cries for Slow Food over the years: Stichelton (DA VERIFICARE) in England, Afuega l’Pitu (DA VERIFICARE) in Spain, and Historic Rebel (DA VERIFICARE) in Italy. But new threats are arising with the development of new PDOs in more recent additions to the European Union, like Bulgaria.

Afuega’l Pitu, also known as Rey Silo

Sirene

As proudly announced by the Bulgarian Ministry of Agriculture and Food in July, “white brined cheese”, known as Sirene, has become the second dairy PDO in the country. But as Dessislava Dimitrova, President of Slow Food in Bulgaria, explains, this is more of a marketing stunt than an attempt to protect a tradition. “The obligation to pasteurize the milk used to make Sirene creates a contradiction in terms. As Slow Food has underlined, the connection between a cheese and a specific place of origin is guaranteed by the bacterial flora that is naturally present in the milk. So if the milk is pasteurized, what does it matter where it comes from? Pasteurized milk is, by design, a homogenized product.”

As in so many sectors, the long shadow of communism hangs over Bulgarian dairy. The almost complete nationalization[1] (DA VERIFICARE) of the land and the abolishment of private property by law meant a break in the chain of generational knowledge transfer. Another consequence was that agriculture and food production were industrialized and had to comply with the unified Bulgarian State Standards.

“There was limited food diversity in the country for several decades, and just three processed dairy products available: a white cheese, a yellow cheese and a yogurt, which all tasted the same no matter their origin.” Since the end of communism, the majority of national dairy production remains in the hands of a small number of large companies; some of these companies have since established the Bulgarian Traditional Dairy Products Association—“a paradox in itself”—and applied for PDO status.

Not illegal… but “not recommended”

Meanwhile, small-scale farmers who produce cheese from their own animals continue to make raw milk cheese, (DA VERIFICARE) firm in their conviction that this is how the true Bulgarian cheese-making traditions can be kept alive: through products which have a direct connection with their place of origin. However, though not forbidden by law, raw milk cheeses are “not recommended” by the Bulgarian authorities. Now, with the establishment of a PDO which only permits the use of pasteurized milk, the preservation of this cultural heritage tied to traditional cheesemaking seems doomed. Farmers who persevere and continue to make cheese in the traditional fashion, despite the challenges that involves, will not be able to benefit from PDO status.

The traditional version of the cheese, Rhodopsko Bito Sirene, (DA VERIFICARE) is also made traditionally from raw milk. It was once produced mostly with sheep’s milk, though a decline in sheep herds has led to a gradual switch to cow’s milk. Its history stretches back to Ottoman times, and is tied to pastoral traditions in the Rhodope Mountains. Because of the informal nature of its production and distribution, it’s hard to say exactly how many producers there are still making this cheese with raw milk in the traditional manner, with wooden tools and natural starters, but there are ongoing efforts to revive the tradition.

“These industrial cheese makers in the Bulgarian Traditional Dairy Products Association, the PDO holder, have never produced Sirene in an artisanal manner,” Dessislava adds. “Their monopolization of the name will make any future efforts to promote raw milk cheeses and the artisanship behind it even more difficult in Bulgaria.”

Other cases in Europe

This is far from being the first time that a cheese’s name has been called into question by a European PDO: there are cases in numerous countries, and Slow Food has long been on the forefront of the fight to save artisanal productions.

Stichelton, a raw milk cheese protected by a Slow Food Presidium in England.

Stichelton: a rebellious blue cheese

Perhaps the most famous case is that of Stichelton, (DA VERIFICARE) a raw milk version of Stilton made by Joe Schneider in Nottinghamshire. In 1996, while the UK was still a member of the EU, a PDO was created for the cheese defining a traditional production area covering three countries (Derbyshire, Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire), and proscribing the use of pasteurized milk. The PDO remains in place despite Brexit, and though the UK’s exit from the EU would in theory have given the government the freedom to change such laws, it has so far shown no interest in doing so.

Encouragingly, a new cheese has recently joined the Slow Food Presidium for Stichelton: Sparkenhoe Blue, made with raw milk in the traditional farmhouse manner in Leicestershire. Despite having to use lesser-known names, the efforts of these brave cheesemakers continue to be more widely recognized by those who see cheese as being more than just a food, but an important part of our culture.

Afuega’l Pitu, or Rey Silo

Afuega’l Pitu, literally meaning “strangle the chicken” in the Asturian language, is another PDO that proscribes the use of pasteurized milk. This should come as no surprise, as the Spanish government banned the production of raw milk cheese in 1981, and only a handful of tenacious raw milk producers remained operational, in defiance of the law. But even they could not resist in the face of the establishment of the PDO, in 2002, which only permitted the use of pasteurized milk. The traditional form of this cheese seemed to be lost forever.

Some years later, in 2010, Pascual Cabaño resumed production of a raw milk version of the cheese, and after a meeting with Umberto Eco and a discussion of the cheese’s history, tied to the resistance of the Asturians to the Arab conquest of Spain, symbolized by the King of the Asturians: Rey Silo. Cut out from the pasteurized PDO, Pascual renamed his cheese Rey Silo and has been resisting, in the Asturian tradition, ever since.

The Historic Rebel in the Alps of Lombardy

In Italy too, we find similar stories. One of the famous is that of Bitto Storico, better known as Storico Ribelle or “Historic Rebel” in Slow Food circles. This cheese has been produced in the Bitto Valley for centuries, but the introduction of the PDO in 1996 enlarged the designated production area and imposed the use of pasteurized milk. The producers of traditional, raw milk Bitto had no intention of bending to the will of the State, and continued to work as they always had done, calling their cheese Bitto storico.

Historic Rebel, as has it been known since 2016, is one of the most emblematic Slow Food Presidia for cheese, and, like Stichelton and Rey Silo, has been an inspiration for other cheesemakers who defend their traditions no matter the bureaucratic obstacles set before them.

As these pressures to conform to industrial standards grow stronger in newer members of the European Union, like Bulgaria, Slow Food intends to support these producers in their struggle to preserve their gastronomic heritage, which is part of our collective cultural heritage. Their fight is our fight, because these traditions belong to us all.

 

[1] Around 95% of which was under State control.

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