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Selva Di Val Gardena
The objective of our Eat, Pray, BUGS tour is not only to measure the “before and after” microbiome changes in our small ten person trial, but to more deeply understand the original and traditional cheese-making process of the more remote regions of Europe.
Ninety percent of all cheeses made worldwide today use a form of rennet as a coagulator in the cheese-making process. Rennet is a complex of enzymes produced in any mammalian stomach. Rennet contains many enzymes that coagulate the milk, causing it to separate into solids (curds) and liquid (whey). The use of rennet is riddled with issues, which I’ll go into (along with some alternatives) in Part 2 of this series. Can you name one or two issues to help folks understand why they might care about a rennet-free cheese-making process…
What we found as we went into the more remote regions of Europe was that there is a long history of making cheese without rennet, and in some cases with no added coagulant at all. This very simple cheese-making process is arguably the way all cheese was originally made before the discovery of rennet. Interestingly, the Ayurvedic cheese paneer (curd) is made using this same basic process.
Grey Cheese and Hay Milk
In the mountain regions of Austria we just visited, we found many summer mountain huts where the traditional graukase, or “grey cheese” (a strongly flavored, non-rennet, acid-curded cheese that owes its name to a grey mould that likes to grow on its rind), and other very simple cheeses were still being made.
More recently, in the town of Selva Di Val Gardena in the Dolomite Mountains of Italy, I spoke with Martin Mussner, a family member of the Valin Dairy, which is a raw-milk-only dairy that still makes some of the traditional cheeses with milk from heumilch (“hay milk”) cows – cows fed only grass and hay – with silage, fermented grass and other plant materials being forbidden. Milk from these cows is said to have a more desirable ratio of Omega 3 to Omega 6 fatty acids, and higher levels of CLA (Conjugated linolein acid) than conventional milk.
Martin told me of his grandfather’s history of making mountain cheese without adding lactic acid bacteria (LAB) or any form of rennet to accelerate the curdling process.
In the summer, cows were (and still are) taken high up into alpine pastures to graze on the lush grasses and flowers. The farmers, along with Martin’s family, would stay in these alpine pastures all summer to milk the cows, and make cheese and butter, dwelling in mountain huts called malgas or refugios.
(Nearly) Spontaneous Cheese
Cheese-making techniques as we know them seem to be comprised of innumerable variations on a very simple age-old process that was practiced by the likes of Martin’s grandfather in the Dolomite mountains.
In these remote conditions, Graukase and other very simple cheeses were first made by allowing the natural process of coagulation to occur spontaneously.
Before that could happen, the milk had to be separated into skim milk and cream. The cream would be churned into butter, while the skim was used to make cheese.
In the thin air of the mountains the milk would be allowed to sit, and in a few days, in just the right conditions, the lactic acid bacteria that naturally occurs in milk would begin to consume the lactose (milk sugars) and coagulate, effectively making curds, or cheese. Once the curds formed, the liquid whey was drained off. Some would use this whey as a starter culture for the next batch of cheese, while other regions saved some of the curd to use as a starter, while others still would just restart the process from scratch.
Traditional ricotta cheese, for example, is made from the whey only.
These original mountain cheeses were called “poor man’s” cheese – most likely because, to get rennet, which comes from the stomach of a calf, the calf would have to die. Killing a calf for rennet was a luxury most mountain cheese farmers could not afford. So, it is commonly believed that long before rennet was used to make the hard cheeses we are accustomed to today, softer cheeses with a much shorter shelf life were the standard fare.
Other regions of Italy, Iceland, Norway and Austria have a legacy of similar rennet-free cheeses, many of which are still made today. “Tosello” and “schiz” are a two examples. Cottage cheese, quark, ricotta, and the Ayurvedic cheese paneer also use a very similar process of lactic acid coagulation.
Before There Was Rennet – The Original Coagulants
Throughout Europe, before the use of rennet, a variety of naturally-occuring, vegetarian-based coagulants were used to accelerate the curdling process. Over time, these natural coagulants, including citric acids and vinegars, seeped into cheese-making traditions around the world. Most of these coagulants are still used to make cheese today, and in fact have a hand in the making of a variety of fermented foods.
These original coagulants are:
Citric Acid – (a naturally occurring acid in citrus fruits) can be found in:
Tartaric acid (a naturally occurring acid in certain fruits) can be found in:
- (cream of tartar is a derivative of tartaric acid)
Vinegar (a product of the fermentation of certain fruits or grains wherein vinegar or acetic acid is produced) can be made from:
- Apples for apple cider vinegar
- Rice for a variety of rice vinegars
- Wine – for red or white wine vinegars
- Grapes – for balsamic vinegar
Paneer – Ayurveda’s Contribution to the World of Simple Cheeses
Paneer is a rennet-free curd cheese made popular in India. Since cows are sacred in India, it seems understandable why rennet was not used in the making of any kind of Indian or Ayurvedic cheese. It’s also worth mentioning here that rennet’s claim to fame was its ability to create harder cheeses that could withstand an entire winter.
Since enduring a winter was not an issue in India, hard cheeses were simply not required or even helpful for survival the way they might be during an intense European winter.
Traditionally, paneer was made with raw milk (as were all cheeses), using lemons and limes as coagulants. It doesn’t get any simpler than this!
The Health Boons of a Good Simple Cheese
The culturing process of cheese is thought to boost populations of good lactobacillus, a beneficial bacterium which can out-perform harmful bacteria. This is one of the reasons cheese has been used throughout history – as a safe way to preserve milk and deliver protein-rich nutrition.
Recent research on the volume and diversity of beneficial microbes that it takes to sustain optimal gut health has ushered in a new regard for foods and herbs that deliver a healthy dose of friendly microbes to the gut. LifeSpa’s organic whole herb formulas naturally contain the highest amount of beneficial microbes possible, by virtue of minimal processing and their plant synergy being left intact. They have the added bonus of acting as prebiotics, sustenance for the beneficial microbes that we want to proliferate in the gut.
Making sure the raw milk cheese is free of pathogens has been a key component in the traditional cheese-making process. In fact, lemons seem to have made a special contribution to this effort. In one study, using lemon as a coagulant was shown to significantly reduce the populations of harmful bacteria such as Listeria and Enterobacteriaceae in the resultant cheese. (3)
Stay tuned for my next article as I discuss the good, the bad and the ugly of rennet-based cheeses, how to navigate around genetically engineered rennet, and – in case you were losing heart – offer up some vegetarian cheese alternatives!
Want to read more about Dr. John’s Eat, Pray, BUGS European Tour? Check out these articles:
- Salque M, (2012). Nature (Nature Publishing Group). doi:10.1038/nature11698.
- Subbaraman, Nidhi (12 December 2012). Nature.
- LWT – Food Science and Technology. March 2008, Vol.41(2):331–336, doi:10.1016/j.lwt.2007.02.012.