Slow Food’s battle to defend natural cheeses focuses on industrial starter cultures as well as raw milk.
Starter cultures are bacteria that provide assistance during the various phases of milk’s transformation into cheese. Wild cultures are found naturally in milk and, like in winemaking, in the surrounding environment, such as on animals’ udders, wooden tools, and milking buckets.
But these days most cheesemakers don’t milk their animals by hand, wood is often banned from dairies, and the milk flows through steel pipes in an hygienically perfect environment. But this hygiene means that less of the bacterial flora useful for cheesemaking (lactic acid bacteria) can survive.
This is a particular problem for the artisanal producers in some countries where overly strict hygiene regulations, designed for the large-scale dairy industry, pose a threat to the flora naturally present in the processing environment.
As a result, it’s often necessary to add selected, industrially produced starter cultures to raw milk, just as to pasteurized milk.
Using industrial starter cultures also makes it easier to obtain cheeses without defects.
Multinationals produce different starters for all kinds of cheese. Increasingly, even up in mountain dairies, cheesemakers are adding the little packets of starter to their milk.
Rather than a necessity, these starter cultures have become an easy shortcut, which ends up standardizing taste and severing a cheese’s connection to the area where it is produced.
What’s in the packets?
Strains of bacteria extracted from milk, selected, and multiplied in special laboratories.
But if you can’t make cheese without a starter culture, are these packets the only solution?
Absolutely not. There are alternatives that reflect biodiversity and do not standardize taste. These techniques are based on the ancient tradition of the “mother.”
Just like for sourdough bread and vinegar, it is possible to prepare a “cheese mother,” a starter made from milk or whey. The procedure is fairly simple, but it requires work, care, and control of timings and temperatures.
Why is this practice not more common? Why does almost nobody teach and promote it?
Behind the use of starter culture packets is a strong market and powerful businesses that sometimes even fund research institutes.
Additionally, the extra effort to make natural cheeses is not adequately rewarded. Industrial starter cultures are considered technological aids (not ingredients or additives) and so their presence does not need to be indicated on the label. This means that consumers aren’t able to differentiate and make informed choices.
Consumers hardly ever have the information that they need to be able to distinguish natural cheeses from industrial ones, and even among experts, knowledge about this topic can be quite limited.