Have you noticed how cheeses tend to taste increasingly similar? And not just industrial cheeses, but also artisanal ones, made using specific techniques and the raw milk of different species and breeds, sometimes even in traditional mountain dairies.
Have you noticed that more and more there is a homogenous note of fermentation in the background, sometimes leaning towards the sweetness of yeast and bread crust?
What is happening? We have successfully protected raw milk, and we're working on promoting local breeds, traditional techniques, livestock pasturing... What did we miss?
A tiny, invisible ingredient that disappears into the cheese after it is added, and is not even listed on the label: lactic acid bacteria. To make cheese, the milk must be separated into solid curds and liquid whey, which is usually done by acidifying the milk, then curdling it using rennet. Some cheeses are acidified using acid like vinegar or lemon juice, but most are made using starter bacteria, which convert the milk sugars (lactose) into lactic acid. Rennet, a complex of enzymes found in mammals' stomachs, is usually used to set the cheese more firmly than the fragile curds produced only by acidic coagulation.
The essential bacteria are naturally found in the milk, on the cheesemaker's hands, on the animals' udders, in the bucket used for milking, on wooden tools and so on. But today the majority of dairies no longer milk by hand, wood is often banned from dairies and the milk passes from tube to tube, from steel to steel, through a perfectly hygienic environment that inhibits the growth of bacterial flora.
"In one milliliter of milk normally there would be a million bacteria and of these, 800,000 would be lactic acid bacteria," explains Giampaolo Gaiarin, the coordinator of two Presidia in Trentino. "These days in the same milliliter there are less than 100,000, while the lactic acid bacteria are 40, 30 or 20 thousand, sometimes practically zero."
As a result, the bacteria now must be added to raw milk, as they always have been to pasteurized milk.
The commercial answer
Commercial, "off-the-shelf" starter cultures contain all the bacteria needed to start the cheesemaking process. These freeze-dried packets are used because the milk is essentially too clean. But adding a commercial starter also makes the results more consistent and the proportion of final defects smaller. Additionally for some time consultants, experts, health authorities and consortia have been supporting this practice as a solution to a whole range of problems.
This shortcut standardizes flavors, eliminates defects and makes a fortune for the multinationals that produce the starters. All it takes is a phone call, a description of the type of cheese to be made (semi-hard, soft, caciotta, fontal, etc.) and the right packet will arrive. The same companies supply rennet, additives, rind treatments, molds, liquid smoke and so on. A kit of packets and vials turns milk into cheese.
To give you an idea, read these examples of online marketing material from two companies that produce starter cultures, global industry leader Chr. Hansen and Italian business Amaltea.
"Chr. Hansen offers eight lines of high-quality cultures for dairies, covering every type of cheese: soft, feta, semi-cooked, cottage, Cheddar, pasta filata, Emmenthal and hard. [...] We can cover the entire spectrum of colors: For the dairy sector in particular we offer coloring solutions with shades that range from yellow to orange for cheeses, and colors that visually convey the flavor of fresh fruit for yogurts and fermented milks. [...] Our range of flavors helps producers to personalize their own dairy products, distinguishing their brand's characteristics and making them unique." (Translated from the company's Italian website).
On the Italian company's English-language site, we find this: "Amaltea is specialized in transforming artisan technologies for making Italian cheeses into an industrial scale. Using milk-clotting enzymes selected directly from traditional cheeses, reproduced in a laboratory and subsequently freeze dried, with the use of specific rennets it is possible to produce products on an industrial scale which are completely similar to traditional ones..."
We know this kind of language well and have always associated it with industrial food production. This vocabulary should not be linked to the work of herders, artisans and cheesemakers working in mountain dairies. But that's not the case. Even in small workshops, even high up in the mountains, those fateful packets have arrived, along with feed silos. We've found them practically everywhere, in the Alps, in the Pyrenees...
What is in the packets?
Strains of bacteria extracted from milk produced who knows where in the world, selected and
multiplied in specialized laboratories.
Are these packets the only solution?
There are alternatives that respect biodiversity and do not contribute to the standardization of flavors, alternatives that look back to the ancient tradition of the "mother" culture.
As with bread or vinegar, it is possible to prepare a kind of "cheese mother," a natural starter culture that can be obtained from milk or whey. Gaiarin explains one way of obtaining a natural starter, a thermophilic starter culture: "You need to use milk from two or three farmers," explains Gaiarin. "The milk is heated to 63-65°C, then cooled to 45-48°C, reaching the optimal conditions for bacterial multiplication. This temperature is kept constant until coagulation begins. Then the starter is poured off and refrigerated. Unlike bread starters, the milk culture is made fresh every two days, at most every three days."
Though this type of practice requires more work, more conscientious care and stricter supervision of timing and temperatures, in the end it is quite simple.
So why is it not so widespread? Why does almost nobody teach or promote it?
Firstly because behind the packets lies a big market, with powerful companies who provide significant funding to research institutions. And also because in the end the extra work is not fairly rewarded. The story of starter cultures is not commonly known, and there are very few who are familiar with their existence and importance, even among experts.
And we fall into the same eternal problem: It is consumers' level of experience and knowledge that decides the level of quality, integrity and healthiness of the food products they buy.