|An Essay by Jonathan S. White|
Grasslands Cheese Consortium
Sustainable Cuisine White Paper
New York 1999, Earth Pledge Press
Theodore Kheel, Publisher
For 8,000 years, there has been a triangle trade between humans, ruminants and lactic bacteria.
The humans protect and feed the livestock: sheep, cows, goats, camels, yaks, etc., while they graze on the grass and produce milk. This milk making is the result of another triangle, where the sun and soil produces grass, the cow eats the grass, and the manure fertilizes the soil.
Because the sun-grass cycle is seasonal, there is more milk in spring and less in winter. So, to balance the supply and demand, humanity developed a partnership with friendly bacteria, which ferment the surfeit spring milk into a preservable form: cheese. In subsistence agriculture, the spring milk stored as cheese was often times all that stood between the farm family and starvation.
Cheese is made by humans with the help of friendly bacteria. We “farm” the bacteria, feeding, nurturing and protecting them, allowing them to expand beyond their original domain, the teats of mammals. They in turn drink of milk’s sweetness, cheating their nasty cousins, the spoiler organisms. They turn the sweet lactose into lactic acid, which causes the milk to curdle, and the curds to give up their water as whey. When it has shed its tears of whey, ephemeral milk becomes stable cheese, which is put in the cave or cellar, to await the pangs of winter.
There, in the cave, a hungry human, taking the last wheel of cheese, covered with mold, ripe almost to the point of rot, and, scraping away the oozing rind, in a triumph of the human spirit, tastes the fecundity of Spring on a frozen February morning.
In the 20th Century, this simple, balanced triangle devolved into a top-heavy system involving tanker trucks moving milk hundreds of miles to massive, capital intensive processing plants, producing rivers of wastewater and plastic-entombed lumps of orange stuff ironically still called “cheese.”
But now we stand on the threshold of a rebirth, of the return of cheese making to the provinces, where cheeses reflect the uniqueness of their artisanal birth and the whey, and the value, stays on the farm. And since cheese has 10% of the mass of the milk that made it, we save 90% of the fossil fuel burned in transport.
We all carry within us the genetic memory of that cold February morning — it is indeed the reason that fermented foods hold such a deep spiritual appeal. Those of us who have seen the light have a responsibility to share the vision, to awaken the memory in others, so that demand for artisanal cheeses will reach a sustainable level and make them more affordable.
At the same time, we need to help lower the barriers that prevent fine artisanal products from reaching us. Small producers lack the capital required to age cheese properly, and the tractor-trailer retail food industry is simply not equipped to distribute and market artisanal products. The solution lies in establishment of regional aging consortia, which would buy young cheeses from farmers and sell ripe cheeses via the Web to citizens of the Global Village.
The last time we tore a page off of the millennial calendar, the world was undergoing a restructuring, as small kingdoms were once again being integrated into huge empires. Change can be good, and it can be bad, but it is always inevitable and irresistible. We can't stop the river of change from flowing, but we can steer it. And to the extent that we can direct those waters towards the floating of the human spirit, so we can measure our progress as a society.