A Virtuous Cycle

Bronwen and Francis Percival on the terroir of cheese

Of the several haunting images in Bronwen and Francis Percival’s new book, Reinventing the Wheel: Milk, Microbes, and the Fight for Real Cheese, (UC Press, 2017; $30) one of the most poignant is of two caged goats. Francis recounts how his future wife and partner in all things microbial joined a 4-H club in southern California, hoping to convince her parents to get her a horse. When she was smitten by her friend’s goats, her parents immediately got on board with this more manageable alternative and built a pen. The caged goats watch Bronwen’s father charging around with a weed whacker on fire-protection patrol, then watch the family raking up and carting off the scrub. The goats, who would have eagerly done the cleanup, were restricted, instead, to store-bought feed, the better to protect the health of the family drinking their milk. When Bronwen used their pasteurized milk, powdered bacteria and liquid enzymes to make her first cheese, it wasn’t a food her family was eager to eat.

The Percivals consider the implications and outcomes of that scenario as it is replayed throughout the dairy industry. But what does the history of the dairy industry as told by a cheese buyer and a food writer have to do with wine? It would be simple enough to switch out the subtitle to read: Grapes, Microbes, and the Fight for Real Wine. Or just read far enough into the first chapter, “Ecologies,” to reach page 11, where the authors share their early admiration for Burgundy, working a harvest there as they grapple with “the consequences of the relationship between farming practices and flavor.” They found that “the thriving wine trade in Burgundy was in stark contrast to the struggling Anglo-Saxon dairy industry….In Burgundy, small-scale agriculture offers material rewards, and farmers with tiny holdings become international celebrities.” The Percivals ask, “Why can’t cheese be like this?”

In fact, the battles they describe in the dairy business are rife in the wine industry as well. And the book inevitably provides insight that is as valuable to a contemporary wine drinker as it may be to anyone interested in delicious cheese, or in personal health. In the chapter called “Risk,” a section on food safety considers the impact of the commodity market on the physical and emotional health of farmers, ending with the not-so-ironic statement: “Raw-milk cheese can save lives.”

Milk has been a public health concern ever since families no longer kept their own cows. Back then, if milk wasn’t drunk when it was taken from the cow, it was preserved by making it into cheese. Pasteurization was key to making milk safe as an industrial product, preventing microbial populations from turning dangerous when milk was transported and held for any length of time in its liquid form. The Percivals consider how the industrialization of dairy farming changed the nature of cheese making. Long before scientists identified pathogenic microbes that might cause cheese to turn bad or cause the people who eat it to die, cheesemakers had developed tools and techniques that minimized inconsistent and dangerous outcomes. They learned to shepherd microbial populations toward healthful outcomes, rather than killing off those microbes and replacing them with monocultures.

At the start of the book, the Percivals introduce Dr. Marie Christian Montel, director of the Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique in Aurillac, France. Montel’s lab studies microbial populations in the wooden barrels used for milking Saler cows, the local breed that produces milk for Cantal cheese. Contemporary agricultural science would suggest that wooden buckets are a breeding ground for bacteria, by definition, a danger to public health. In fact, Montel’s team found that the bacterial populations in the traditional wooden milk buckets provided greater protection against dangerous bacteria than sterile buckets could.

“According to the Pasteurians,” the Percivals write, “because pathogenic microbes make us ill, the best route to safety is to annihilate the entire microbial community. In the case of wooden boards [referencing the milking barrels for Saler cows], as with so many other examples of microbial communities in action, we have seen how this is demonstrably not the case.”

The Percivals do not question the importance of risk management. But they wonder at the indiscriminant use of powerful tools developed to destroy things that threaten our lives—especially when those tools, used unnecessarily, may weaken the systems that sustain our lives. Their book is a brilliant consideration of microbial ecology, the science that is causing a refresh of our view of everything from human health to the health of cows and farmers in the dairy industry. And their consideration of how carefully shepherded microbial populations might be central to what we find delicious and valuable in cheese—what compels us to spend more money on one cheese over another—may also be central to what we find delicious and compelling in wine. Having started out exploring food and culture through the lens of wine, they offer a way to explore wine through the lens of cheese, the most terroir-expressive food

Reinventing the Wheel: Milk, Microbes, and the Fight for Real Cheese (UC Press, 2017; $30)

Reviewed in W&S Winter 2017.