A beautiful cheese counter, full of different shapes, brands and packaging, can be bewildering. Apart from personal taste, how else can we decide what cheese or milk it’s best to buy?
If we’re aiming for quality, the label is just the starting point. There are other tools that can help us choose the best product. At Cheese, we’ll be explaining how to identify quality in dairy products during a number of different workshops, including the Milk Workshops “The Pasture, a Resource to Protect” and “Raw or Pasteurized, But Above All: What Kind of Milk Is It?” and the Taste Workshop “50 Shades of Yellow.”
But for now, Roberto Rubino, the president of the Associazione Nazionale Formaggi Sotto il Cielo (National Association of Cheeses Made Under the Sky) has some tips for us.
The quality of milk and cheeses depends on:
– livestock diet
– the heat treatment of the milk
Let’s take a closer look at these three factors.
The nutritional quality of milk and cheeses can be measured by calculating the omega-6/omega-3 ratio and the DAP (Degree of Antioxidant Protection). The DAP determines the capacity of a nutrient to block the oxidation of cholesterol; the higher the value the more cholesterol oxidation is kept under control.
Omega-6s and omega-3s are polyunsaturated fatty acids, linoleic acid and alpha-linolenic acid respectively. These fatty acids are called “essential” because the body is not able to synthesize them and they must come from the diet. Once ingested, these two nutrients are converted by enzymes into other polyunsaturated fatty acids. In particular, linoleic acid is converted into other fatty acids in the omega-6 series, while alpha-linolenic acid is converted into other omega-3 fatty acids. The levels and proportions of fatty acids from the two series are important for the prevention and treatment of coronary disease, hypertension, type-2 diabetes and immune-system and inflammatory disorders. A low omega-6/omega-3 ratio is a sign of good health. The sensory quality and aroma of milk depend on the quantity and variety of grasses contained in the animals’ diet. The greater the quantity and variety of grasses eaten by the animals, the smaller the yield of milk, but the greater its aromatic and nutritional complexity.
In other words, more grasses means less milk and higher quality.
By far the best milk is produced by animals allowed to graze outdoors in pastures. In this milk, the omega-6/omega-3 ratio is close to 1 (with indoor-fed animals it can exceed 10) while the DAP is around 20 (as compared to 4 for indoor animals).
Is it possible to recognize a cheese made from the milk of grass-fed animals?
Definitely. In the case of cow’s milk, the cheese will be yellow because of the high beta-carotene content of the grasses. Sheep, goats and buffalos transform the beta-carotene into vitamin A in their livers, so their cheeses don’t have the same bright color. However, at least in Italy, the vast majority of sheep and goats are grass-fed, while all buffalos are kept indoors.
Heat treatment of milk
The other factor that determines the quality of the cheese is the heat treatment of the milk. During cheesemaking, some producers pasteurize their milk. Any treatment of the raw milk will have negative effects. Specifically, we can expect a flattening of the taste, a drop in bacterial flora and a reduction in the degree of antioxidant protection. In this case, the label can help us, as it usually states whether the milk was raw or pasteurized.
A significant role is also played by aging in natural environments, because the natural microenvironment encourages the cheese’s aging processes. The use of wood in the dairy is also important, because wood provides an excellent place for good bacterial flora to multiply.
A different situation for milk for direct consumption
The dairy industry likes to mix different batches of milk and then diversify the product by adding or taking something away (vitamins, fat, calcium) from the raw material. The only evident difference is in different levels of heat treatment, which, as with cheeses, negatively influence the quality. The higher the temperatures, the greater the damage. The highest quality is raw milk, followed by pasteurized, microfiltered, high pasteurized, UHT and then sterilized. The quality of the raw material is apparently all the same, and we have no tools for identifying it.
The only example, for now, is Campanian Apennine Noble Milk, a model of quality classification and differentiation established in Campania a few years ago, which is being adopted by all kinds of milk users (cheesemakers, ice cream producers, confectioners, pastry chefs). The protocol sets the prerequisites for this diversity: a forage/concentrate ratio of 70/30, more than eight different grasses, an omega-6/omega-3 ratio lower than 5, an average production per cattleshed of less than 6,000 liters. Everything is overseen by ANFoSC, the Italian association for cheeses made “under the sky,” and consumers are immediately recognizing the milk, shops are asking to stock it and, most importantly, farmers are receiving more a price 50% higher than the standard market rate. This is a good, clean and fair milk, and not by chance is also a Slow Food Presidium. This replicable model is currently being introduced in Basilicata and Molise.
President of ANFoSC, Associazione Nazionale Formaggi Sotto il Cielo (National Association of Cheeses Made Under the Sky)