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Cheese and Microbes

Editor: Catherine W. Donnelly1
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Affiliations: 1: Department of Nutrition and Food Sciences; 2: Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese, The University of Vermont, Burlington, Vermont;
Content Type: Monograph
Publication Year: 2014

Category: Food Microbiology

Human evolution and history are inextricably connected to a world of microbes. Over thousands of years, a global landscape of food and drink has rested fundamentally on beneficial microorganisms and the process of fermentation.

In , editor Catherine W. Donnelly presents perspectives from internationally renowned experts on the essential role of these wonderful organisms in transforming milk into an extraordinary galaxy of cheeses. The chapters provide a scientific overview of the association of microbes with cheese through the lens of select cheese varieties that result due to surface mold ripening, internal mold ripening, rind washing, cave aging, and surface smear rind development.

  • Explains the transformation of milk to cheese and how sensory attributes of cheese are evaluated
  • Discusses the regulations governing cheesemaking, both in the United States and abroad, that ensure safety
  • Explores how the tools of molecular biology provide new insights into the microbial complexity of cheeses
  • Examines the biodiversity of traditional cheeses as a result of traditional practices
  • Presents research on the stability of the microbial consortia of select traditional cheese varieties
is for cheesemakers, scientists, students, and cheese enthusiasts who wish to expand their knowledge of cheeses and traditional foods.

. —Jeff Roberts, Owner/President, Cow Creek Creative Ventures; Adjunct Faculty, New England Culinary Institute; and Visiting Faculty, University of Gastronomic Sciences

is a professor of nutrition and food science at the University of Vermont. She served as the Associate Director of the Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese from 2004 to 2013. Recognized by colleagues for her many contributions to improving detection, Dr. Donnelly is widely regarded as an international expert and has published numerous articles and delivered hundreds of presentations on this bacterial pathogen. Her current scholarly interests include investigation of the microbiological safety of aged raw milk cheeses.

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Cheese Notes

31 July 2014

On The Bookshelf: Cheese and Microbes

There is a universe of invisible players participating in the creation of every wheel of cheese; at the microbial level, an army of bacteria, molds and yeasts do the heavy lifting of transforming the white fluid that emerges from the udders into the rainbow of cheese varieties we know and love. Some of those microbes are present in the milk even before it leaves the animal; others are added by the cheesemakers — whether from lab-produced foil packs or carefully nurtured mother cultures — or are resident in the making and aging spaces through which the wheels pass.

Here to tell the story of this microbial world comes a new book: Cheese And Microbes, a compendium of current writing on the role of microbiology in cheesemaking, from ASM Press (the American Society of Microbiology). Dr Catherine Donnelly, the editor, as well as the author of the first chapter, is a professor of nutrition and food science, an international Listeria expert, and was one of the founders of the Vermont Institute of Artisan Cheese, at the University of Vermont, Burlington (which sadly had to close down its venerated educational program just a couple years ago). As such she is someone who really knows her Candidum’s from her Staph’s, and has been at the forefront of the explosion of new cheesemakers in the US in the last couple decades. (Note: I completed the VIAC Cheesemaker Certification program right before it closed, in 2013).

We might not be able to see these organisms at work, but we can certainly see the results, whether in the brainy wrinkles of a Loire Valley goat’s milk cheese, the pungent red smear of a washed rind or the vibrant indigo veins running through a blue cheese. Whether a cheese, at peak, oozes into a puddle as it warms or sags but holds firm; whether it smells faintly of mushrooms or strongly of barnyard, can come down to which microbes were dominant at crucial points in the aging process.

Every decision that the cheesemaker and affineur makes is in service to these tiny, temperamental lords: temperature, humidity, flipping, brushing, rubbing, aging, all designed to allow certain populations to thrive, while discouraging others from getting a foothold in our wheels. When a cheese wins Best In Show at a competition, it’s because this microbial dance was masterfully choreographed; when a cheese tastes acrid or blows up like a balloon from excess gas, it’s because, at some point in the process, the wrong microbes took over.

The story of microbes in cheese includes the bad guys of course, the Listerias and Salmonellas which can threaten our health, or a mold like the gray, fuzzy Mucor, which, while harmless for human consumption, is a vexing cosmetic challenge driving many a cheesemaker to distraction when it appears on their pristine wheels. Much of the research indicates that our best protection against the unwanted microbes is not to sterilize the milk or the aging spaces in the hopes of killing off the undesirable organisms, but rather to ensure that the desired microbes are able to thrive and form a steadybulwark. The best defense is a good offense, and a wheel that has a thriving population of desirable microbes already resident is a much harder target for invaders.

This is not a cheesemaking guide, and you won’t find any recipes in it. Neither is it a microbiology 101 textbook (although it does cover the fundamentals of both cheesemaking and microbiology). Rather, it collects some of the best studies, essays and research, from a broad array of authors, on the subject of microbes and the science of cheesemaking, seen through the lens of a variety of cheese styles. From Rachel Dutton and Ben Wolfe writing about an “ecological” approach to cheese microbiology; Sister Noella Marcellino writing about “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly” of mold-ripened cheeses; a study of the microbiology of Alpine cheeses (comparing the active cultures, and divergent flavor and aroma profiles, in raw- vs pasteurized-milk cheeses); or an analysis of wooden tools as a “reservoir of microbial biodiversity”, each chapter examines cheese from a unique, microscopic perspective.

The book comes out at a very timely moment: with the recent brouhaha over the FDA’s threatened-then-retracted ban on the aging of cheeses on wood, it’s more important than ever for cheesemakers, cheesemongers and even “civilians” — i.e. the customer standing at the cheese counter wondering what to buy — to have a solid, informed understanding of the role that the microbial kingdom plays in cheese, and where the dangers do — or do not — really come from. (Spoiler alert: wood is not a common vector for contamination and may even provide some protections that plastic does not offer). Dr Dennis D’Amico, who taught my Sanitation & Hygiene class at VIAC and has long been an advocate for improved safety practices in artisan cheese operations, authors a chapter titled "Microbiological Quality and Safety Issues in Cheesemaking". Education becomes doubly important with increased scrutiny coming from the FDA and state inspectors, and the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) imposing additional requirements, such as a HAACP Plan, on producers. More than ever, small-scale producers can benefit — and protect themselves — with a deeper comprehension of the science of cheesemaking.

The book begins with the basics — the first chapter, from Dr Donnelly, is titled “From Pasteur to Probiotics: A Historical Overview of Cheese and Microbes”, followed by Dr. Paul Kindstedt writing on “The Basics of Cheesemaking”, Dr. Montse Almena and Dr. Bernard Mietton discussing “Cheese Classification, Characterization and Categorization”, and so on, gradually advancing into more complex territory (I’ll admit some of the charts and graphs in later chapters made my eyes cross a little). Some of them are dense and technical in nature, with page after page of data (such as the chapter on the “Microfloras of Traditional Greek Cheeses”), while others take a more conversational, essayistic approach (Sister Noella’s chapter is both technical and entertaining at once, recounting her adventures in the caves of france and the labs of Connecticut). But even with the more technical chapters, the information presented is fascinating enough to keep you moving (well, if you’re a gigantic cheese nerd at least).

Just because you make cheese doesn't mean you understand the scientific processes occurring in the vat or the cave, anymore than a baker can necessarily identify the precise strains causing their loaves to expand, or a brewer really knows the critters giving his beer a proper head. But one of the interesting paradoxes of this new age of artisan, small-scale, homemade, local, DIY, is that a technical, scientific understanding of food preparation has become more sought after than ever. Even as we reject the manufactured, hyper-standardized approach of industrial foods, we are bringing many of the skills and know-how of the laboratory into our own small-scale operations. Whether it’s pickling, fermentation, brewing, baking, or cheesemaking (David Chang with his R&D Lab, or Sandor Katz, are just a few of the culinary stars of this moment), we are looking beyond the recipe, and seeking to understand the why and the how, even at the microscopic scale. If this is something that interests you, or if you are a current or aspiring cheesemaker, Dr Donnelly’s book is an excellent resource to have at your fingertips.

It should be said that this book is not cheap. At a list price of $150, it’s clearly priced for the textbook market. I’d say it’s worth the investment, but I’ve already had more than one professional cheesemaker say to me that they’d love to read it, but…it’s just a little too expensive for their budget. Perhaps there will be a paperback edition down the road that will be more affordable; this is the kind of book that should be on the shelf in any creamery.

UPDATE: ASM Press has announced that the price has been lowered to $125, and $99 for ASM Members! View it on the ASM site here.

Cheese and Microbes Editor: Catherine W. Donnelly Publication Year: 2014 Category: Food Microbiology Print ISBN : 9781555815868 e-ISBN : 9781555818593 DOI: 10.1128/9781555818593

Cheese Notes

Cheesenotes.com

Reviewer: Matt Spiegler, VIAC-certified urban cheesemaker and blogger

Review Date: July 2014

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