“Natural” is an abstract word, like “quality,” “tradition,” or “modernity.” This makes it hard if not impossible to define. De Tocqueville said that an abstract word was like a box with a false bottom: “you can put in it what ideas you please and take them out again unobserved.” As a result, the word can be confused and even abused.
In the world of wine, “natural” has a clearer meaning. It refers to a vision that rejects the so-called modern way of making wine in favor of less invasive, less standardized practices. And this vision is quickly gaining ground. One of the natural wine movement’s bugbears is industrial yeasts, which some producers believe flatten out quality, remove terroir, and irredeemably alter the traditional vinification process.
In other production chains, this process is less clear and less publicized, but there is a growing movement of producers who espouse a philosophy of maximum “naturalness,” and it cuts across brands, PDOs, and organic and biodynamic certifications.
Slow Food uses the term “natural” to identify those products that reject, where legally possible, additives, preservatives, selected starter cultures, colorings, antioxidants, and industrial yeasts. Sourdough bread and salami made without nitrites and nitrates are just two examples.
When it comes to dairy, “natural” refers to artisanal cheeses made without the use of industrial starter cultures. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg of an alternative to the intensive and standardized production model.
Making cheese without industrial starter cultures means starting with well-managed livestock (healthy animals who are free to graze for much of the year). It means not pasteurizing milk (because there is no need), but choosing to preserve the aromatic and nutritional integrity of raw milk. It means being a skilled cheesemaker, able to work without taking shortcuts or resorting to artificial corrective measures. In short, natural cheese is the end result of a different production philosophy that produces excellent cheeses that respect the environment and animal welfare.