3Say Cheese! by Cynthia Graber and Nicola Twilley, aired on Gastropodwww.gastropod.com
HP: The very question we were to address is how is cheese made. Which I think that the postdocs who put together the questions thought that this was a straightforward question to begin with, but we went round and round. Because it turns out that you can't explain how cheese is made without knowing what you mean by cheese.
CG: Youre listening to Gastropod.
NT: The podcast where we wrestle with the really big questions. Like: what is cheese, anyway?
CG: Well, not exactly. Its more like, here we are, putting out an episode about cheese history and cheese science and even how to put together the ultimate cheese plate, and it turns out we dont actually know what cheese is! But were getting ahead of ourselves. Im Cynthia Graber.
NT: And Im Nicola Twilley, and the lady who opened up this whole pandoras box of how to define cheese was Heather Paxson.
CG: Shes an anthropologist at MIT. Shes been studying cheese and the people who make it. She also was part of an American Academy of Microbiology meeting last summer, in June 2014. They were talking about the role of microorganisms in cheese. Theres a paper that came out of that meeting - we have it for you on our website. So Heather organized a cheese tasting for us, to help us to get to the bottom of what cheese actually is. HP: So for instance we were of course there to talk about microbes and cheese. And, in fact, the FAQ that came out of it is titled Microbes make the cheese. And in many of the cheeses that first come to mind for instance, the cheddar that we have here on the table its a natural cheese. Its developed first by the bacterial fermentation of milk that allows for the curds to then coagulate and develop a natural rind on the outside, which contributes to the flavor and the character that we attribute to the cheddar, as opposed to another sort of cheese.So that was the kind of cheese that I think everybody had in mind but then as soon as we started talking, we people said, Well, what about ricotta? What about paneer? What about American cheese?
CG: Thats because ricotta, paneer, a goats milk chevre - those dont contain microbes at all! And American cheese? Well get to that crazy process later.
NT: I feel like this is the kind of thing people fight wars over. Or at least expensive legal battles. So what about ricotta? Is it a cheese?
HP: Ricotta is definitely a cheese.
NT: Phew. Case closed.
CG: Wait a second the plot thickens...
HP: There was a difference of approaches in the different working groups that we had at our meeting. And some really set out to come up with a universal definition. And the universal definition is basically that cheese is dehydrated and aged milk.
CG: that doesn't sound nearly as attractive!
HP: It really doesnt!
CG: In the end, basically, Heather said that the scientists decided that there were three different methods for making cheese. And the end products of each of those three methods count as legit cheese. So you can just use acid to clump milk proteins into curds. Thats the acid method, for things like cottage cheese. Or you can use acid and heat. Thats ricotta and paneer. Or you can use rennet and microbes, like for cheddar or brie or all the other things we think of as cheese. Rennets an enzyme that traditionally comes from the stomach lining of calves, though weve figured out other ways to make it these days.
NT: So basically, to get to cheese, you need to separate milk into solids and liquid, and you have three choices for how to do that.
CG: Its funny, though, if you taste ricotta
NT: Oh wait a minute, am I finally going to get to eat something on this show?
CG: Not only that, we are going to eat it eat together. In different states. Using a bit of complicated engineering, with us buying the same identical cheeses-
NT: Oh, poor us, double the cheese -
HP: It tastes like milk.
NT: It tastes like cream.
NT: Its really good. But you know, it is very delicate in flavor. Like there is none of that I mean, if you told me this wasnt cheese and you asked me to believe it was just thickened cream, I would accept that definition.
CG: Yeah, me too.
HP: Yeah yeah thats interesting. I mean, its fresh, right. It also hasnt been aged. So the microorganisms I mean, in a hard cheese we get the flavor from the microorganisms breaking down the enzymes and the fats in the milk, and releasing flavor compounds. And that doesnt happen with ricotta. Because its fresh and we eat it right away and there is no breaking down of the component parts. So its as good as the milk is.
CG: Whats crazy here is that the ricotta we just tasted might be something like very first cheeses ever made. Though those were from sheep or goats milk. I spoke to a cheese scientist and historian. His name is Paul Kindstedt, hes at the University of Vermont. He described the origins of the very first cheese.
PK: Well the earliest evidence and it's really fairly recent because of new analytical methods technologies that have enabled archaeo-chemistry to be carried out at levels never before. But the earliest evidence for cheese-making and large-scale dairying goes back to about 7000 6500 BC.
NT: We are going back to the very dawn of cheese. But before we go there - first were going to hear some of your cheese stories.
JENNY: Im Jenny Morber and here is my cheese story. My dad actually worked for Kraft foods when he was a young engineer hurting for money. His job as least from the stories Ive heard was to taste products that had gone a bit off, to see if he could tell what had gone wrong with the processing. Needless to say, we didnt have much Velveeta in the house, and he never ate mayonnaise. But we didnt have much else in the house either, cheese-wise. I still remember the time I taste brie from a supermarket in France. I was like, holy shit, cheese can taste like this? It was like I put on a pair of classes and could suddenly see the leaves. Yeah, I gained fifteen pounds that summer.
MIKE: Hello, Gastropod, this is Mike in Gainsville, Florida. I was calling to say I absoutely adore cheese. I was delighted when I discovered from my English wife that cheese is actually a course in an English dinner.
NT: So speaking as an English wife, I can say that this is just one of the many reasons why were the best! Heres another story - Emily Lo Gibson told us she started loving cheese thanks to Wallace and Grommit. But it didnt turn into a full on addiction until she spent a semester studying abroad in Paris. Enjoying her host familys nightly cheese course. MUSIC - WALLACE AND GROMMIT
NT: Back to the history. Cynthia, transport us back nearly nine thousand years to the very very very beginning of cheese.
CG: Heres what was going on. But actually I have to start back even earlier, by about a thousand years. Okay - so were in the fertile crescent, its the region that curves down through the Middle East, from Egypt on one side to Iraq and the western fringes of Iran and as far north as about southern Turkey. And why then? The climate had changed - it was the end of the last major ice age. Things are warming up. And people started growing all these crops. Its basically the dawn of agriculture. They start settling down and growing cereals that theyll eventually domesticate. And the local wildlife started showing up to snack on the crops.
NT: By which you mean things like goats and sheep.
CG: Right. And as we know, these animals can provide milk. The only problem is that was basically no use. Everybody was lactose intolerant. Except for the babies.
PK: Almost certainly in the early stages, we don't know when the first experiments with milking for human consumption took place, but almost certainly the milk was harvested for the very young children. Because humans would be very well aware that young children survive on milk. Until theyre weaned.
NT: OK, so now we have the start of dairying. But what about cheese?
CG: So it turns out that cheese begins because of the very first human-created environmental disaster.
PK: The soil fertility has been driven to nothing. Deforestation, erosion, lots of evidence of catastrophic environmental failure brought on by too many people and unsustainable agricultural practices that just couldn't support the population any further.
CG: But what the land could support was those animals that were hanging around..
PK: It's amazing how little it takes to raise in terms of vegetation - it takes to raise sheep and goats.
CG: And then one other thing happened at the same time that kick-started our whole incredible love affair with cheese - the Neolithic people invented pottery.
PK: Think about it you have to milk into a container and there were limited options for containers in the Neolithic. So pottery opened the door to collect milk on a larger scale and store it. And in the warm environment of the Fertile Crescent region, that milk would have almost immediately, very quickly, in a matter of hours, coagulated. Because of the natural lactic acid bacteria that is always present in the environment. And so acid coagulated curds or fresh cheeses would have just happens almost instantaneously. NT: Its ricotta!
CG: Or more likely chevre, because goats were domesticated before cows they were a lot smaller and friendlier.
NT: Cynthia, I know youre the one speaking to the expert here, but what I had always heard is that the very first cheese came about because a nomadic herdsman was riding around carrying milk in an animals stomach like some kind of proto thermos. Of course as we said earlier the stomach has rennet in it. So as he rode, the milk coagulated and by the time he stopped for a drink his milk had turned into cheese.
CG: Thats exactly what I thought. I actually wrote a science story on cheese more than a decade ago and I mentioned that story. But its totally not true because the herdsman would have been lactose intolerant. That milk, before cheese came around, it was only for the kids.
CG: Yep, I was wrong. Sorry. But I saw another article just a week or so ago and it had the exact same myth! So here we are. Busting the myth.
PK: The Neolithic peoples would have been confronted with this change in the milk magically going from a liquid to a gel and sort of pudding like consistency. And if they broke up that gel they would have seen that a liquid would separate and a solid curd could be recovered. And at some point probably very quickly some adventurous adult tried some of this curd and found that they could tolerate it a lot more of it than they could milk. Because the lactose content is reduced by about 80% in the process of coagulation and separation and fermentation.
CG: And heres whats totally crazy - eating cheese changed their DNA.
PK: Cheese-making in particular made dairying as a strategy available not just to very young children, which Neolithic people have been dabbling with for some time, we don't know how long. But now suddenly dairying became a viable survival strategy for the entire population because adults could consume cheese. And therefore dairying became part of life in general and milk was available and around. Children and newborns were being exposed to milk far more frequently which ultimately selected for through random mutations those children that could tolerate lactose into later childhood and into adulthood. And it's an absolute stunning example of genetic selection occurring in an unbelievable short period of time. Of time in human development. I mean this is really stunning stunning stuff. That humans could evolve and develop the tolerant selectors so quickly after the onset of dairying. It's really a wonder of the world and it changed the world forever, it changed Western civilization forever.
NT: Thats really kind of amazing. But that means that those cheeses that caused Heather and her microbiologist buddies such a headache the acid coagulated cottage cheeses and the acid heat ones like paneer and ricotta so those are actually the original cheeses.
CG: And really the most important cheeses. I mean, they literally changed our DNA forever. And whats more, they changed our entire civilization. Cheese ends up being at the foundation of cities and even writing, which kind of blew me away because it ends up being part of the very first religion. This is happening in modern day Iraq.
NT: So these are Sumerians.
CG: Exactly. Fast forward about three thousand years. People have been eating cheese for a while. Theyve created the first city-state. Its called Uruk. And it runs on cheese! And so of course their religion now runs on cheese! Heres a tale Paul told me about this goddess named Inana. She has to choose between two suitors - theres a farmer who wants to marry her. And then theres the shepherd, Demusi.
PK: And Demusi makes argument that what I can offer is so much better than what the farmer can. And I have milk and I cream and I have butter or butter oil. And I have cheese and I have flavored cheeses and yogurt and fermented milk. And I produce so much surplus of these products that even when I supply you with all you want and desire Ill have extra leftovers to give away. I can really keep you happy sweetheart.The long and short of it is Inana agrees to marry Demusi and gets won over because she really values the dairy products.
CG: And based on that belief, it starts a thing where people gain favor with the goddess by bringing her cheese and butter at the temple everyday.
PK: And the government basically the king and his ruling elite working in conjunction with the temple priests gain control over shepherds and create a whole contractual system to make sure that there are shepherds that take care of the sacred flocks and the sacred herds. And overseeing a system where dairy products cheese and butter would be coming into the temple every day and stockpiled and then go through a series of rites and rituals. And then they would be redistributed to the civil service who are running the government running the city.
CG: Managing all of that cheese was a bureaucratic nightmare. So whats they do? They invented writing.
NT: To keep track of the cheese! Its like the original management system! I love it. Who moved my cheese but 5000 years ahead of its time!
CG: Its a crazy story. When I was reading the book, sitting next to a friend, I literally exclaimed - the city-state was founded on cheese! I told Paul that story. He hedged and said there were other agricultural products as well. But cheese and butter played a major role.
NT: But, as we discussed with Heather, cheese has come a long way since those early days. So how did we get from that ricotta to all the cheddars and the bries and the E...