CHEESE 2001 – Raw Milk And Biodiversity

This presentation will be a scientific contribution to the study of traditional production using raw milk. In addition, it seeks to be a testimony of how the world of artisan cheese production is both complex and, at the same time fascinating. The large industrial cheese producers – hiding behind a false mask of wholesomeness – are trying to cancel out this testimony by claiming their products are healthful. Fortunately, the consumer has understood that his real health is at risk in this game – not for the usual reasons but because of the silent invasion of genetically modified foods and other modern phenomena. These new developments are not the fruit of history or of popular tradition, but of biotechnology, and, arguably, of the ongoing globalization process that acts in the interests of so few.

Therefore, it is necessary to know and to understand what these historic products represent and for what reasons they deserve our interest and why they merit safeguarding intervention.

To stay on today’s theme of raw milk, it is certainly one of the factors of bio-diversity that best represents macro- and micro-environmental conditions. The whole and heterogeneous presence of different microbial communities in raw milk – the fruit of centuries of selection – contributes to the characterization and diversification of the cheesemaking and cheese-aging processes of artisan cheese produced using traditional techniques.

It must be emphasized that these processes are characterized by a variety of natural factors defined as the ‘characteristics of bio-diversity’: area of production; animal breed; pasture; raw milk; natural rennet; traditional copper or wooden tools; cheese-aging techniques; and the forming of the cheese. These natural factors give the cheeses a strong biological variability and, therefore, man, the cheesemaker – elevating himself to the rank of artist – must daily gauge his actions with respect to the environment. The cheesemaker must therefore find biological equilibrium among various natural factors, adapting the processes of cheesemaking to environmental characteristics and to the quality of the milk to guarantee the production of a cheese of excellent quality.

The challenge to protect raw milk products is therefore only the first stage in recovering and giving value to these niche artisan products. If raw milk is the only artisan aspect that remains of traditional production, and cheese is made and aged in aseptic environments with aseptic tools, raw milk can not really influence organoleptic characteristics in a decisive manner.

The whole system of traditional production, as previously suggested, is the key to a complete and real differentiation in sensory and qualitative quality in these products.

In studies we have conducted, for example, we have been able to ascertain that the use of wooden tools in the production of Ragusano DOP cheese plays an important role in the heritage of auctochthonous microorganisims present in the raw milk because such microorganisms are able to colonize the internal surfaces of the various wooden vats.

Actually, from observations conducted by scanning with an electron microscope the presence of an abundance of extra-cellular matrices surrounded by coccic bacteria cells have been recorded capable of forming a sort of natural biofilm on the inner surface of the round wooden vat in which the milk is curdled.

The coccic bacteria cells, counted and isolated, were identified using techniques of molecular biology that also gave evidence of the following species: Str. Salivarius ssp waiu, Str. Salivarius ssp thermophilus, Lc. Lactis ssp lactis.

Other examples of this phenomenon can be found in the natural cheese-aging caves of ‘Roquefort’ or ‘Formaggio di Fossa’ and other cheeses still. These environments strongly characterize the final products in a way much more marked than in the simple use of raw milk.

In reality, historic and traditional processes must not be considered simply foods, but also testimonies of the heritage of history and culture communicated from one generation to the next, products where man himself is guarantor of the quality and healthfulness of the product. They are also a determining factor for the permanence of the territory and for the quality of life for producers – who certainly merit more recognition from society and from consumers. This is the mission of CoRFiLaC, Slow Food, Oldway, Anfosc, American Cheese Society and the Cheese of Choice Coalition.

Giuseppe Licitra is the President of the Consorzio Ricerca Filiera Lattiero-Casearia in Ragusa, Sicily.

Translated by Anja Fernald

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