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