Reinventing the Wheel – book review


This is the second of her 40+ recent book reviews chosen by Tam to share with everyone.

Reinventing the Wheel
Milk, microbes and the fight for real cheese
Bronwen & Francis Percival
Published by Bloomsbury
ISBN 9781472955517
£17, CA$32


Every now and then you come across a book that so inspires you, so radically opens up a whole new vista in front of you, that you want to shout about it from the highest point you can find. You want everyone to read it. You feel evangelical. You even post on your Facebook page that everyone has a duty to read it. This is that book. This is the single most important book I have read this year.

Bronwen and Francis Percival met at the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery where Bronwen was presenting the topic of her thesis: the relationship between Protected Designation of Origin legislation and tradition. Bronwen is the cheese buyer for Neal's Yard Dairy in London, co-founded the website, and is the UK editor of the Oxford Companion to Cheese. Francis writes on food and wine for The World of Fine Wine and has contributed to Decanter, the Financial Times, Culture, Saveur and Gourmet. He won the Louis Roederer Best International Wine Columnist in 2013. The two of them co-founded and host the London Gastronomy Seminars. Francis is a London boy who ended up in his second year at Cambridge next door to the legendary Sir John Plumb, with his fine cellar and a generous nature, and then went on to become a line cook for five years. Bronwen kept goats as a child on her family farm in California and then spent two years as a health volunteer in Senegal before heading to Oxford.

But the story really begins on a French mountainside in the Auvergne, where a cheese with a history of more then 2,000 years is still made: hand-milked from grumpy Salers cows feeding on pure alpine pastures, fermented in ancient wooden buckets calledgerles, and untouched by a molecule of cleaning chemical or commercial culture. In the early 21st century, thanks to industrialisation, modern legislation, hysterical health and safety concerns, and market pressures, this cheese praised by Pliny himself nearly disappeared forever. But there was a super-hero. Her name was Dr Marie-Christine Montel, French government INRA microbiologist. And she found microbes in the ancient wooden gerles so fiercely healthy and active that they fought off pathogens like tiny lions. Between calf-spitty*, field-milked raw milk and dirty old buckets came a cheese that was not only rare, unique and delicious, but superbly safe.

Salers is a rare story. Much of our cheese today is produced on an industrial basis, the product of monoculture. The Percivals start the book by saying, 'This is the story of what has been lost and how scientists, farmers and cheesemakers are working together to reinvent the wheel.'

Through the stories of people on both sides of the Atlantic and armed with their own knowledge and experience in cheese and wine, the Percivals set out on an expedition to define real cheese and to follow the making of cheese from pasture to table. But it's about so much more. It's not a history of cheese; it's not about the war between tradition and technology or a battle between big and small; it's not a scientific investigation into the importance of microbes and the impact of our obsession with risk annihilation. It's all those things, woven into each other and into the lives of people and change, woven as intricately as the threads that bind humans to their environment and to each other. It's about how we've systematically cut and re-sewn that fabric together and where it's started to fray and come apart as a result. It comes with a strong moral message, and it comes like a cry from the heart. What makes this book so outstandingly powerful, however, is that it is written with penetrating intelligence, a scholarly determination to look at all sides of the mountain, a crisp collection of facts, and a strong foundation of and respect for scientific rigour. Emotion (and you are never in doubt about where their passions lie) is carefully balanced with ruthlessly honest reporting, even at the cost of defending their case (read the story about their meeting with the supermarket buyer). It is rare to come across this taut combination of strong feeling and clear-eyed objectivity.

First of all, you might ask why we're reviewing a cheese book on a wine website. There are reasons. First, it is, to a large extent, a story about microbes, and we are becoming increasingly aware of the vital importance that microbes play in wine, as Julia has written in, for example, 

Microbial terroir – current research round-up, Taste – your mouth may really matter and Microbial terroir: UC Davis leads the way. Second, as Francis Percival constantly points out in the book, there are uncanny parallels between wine and cheese (read the book for more). And third, if you guys love wine, I assume you love cheese. If you love cheese, you need to read this book.

That out the way, we can get down to the book. The Percivals explain that 'we have deliberately chosen not to segregate the book like a textbook: the reader will encounter issues at the same time those issues would trouble the farmhouse cheesemaker'. And the first topic the book tackles is 'Ecologies'. As with wine, the very first decisions about making cheese begin with the where and how, the soil, the climate and the plants. As they unfold the landscape of cheese, be it lush pastures in Normandy or desert farming in California or alpine mountainsides, you begin to get an idea that this might be a little more complex than 'grass-fed'. They also start to sketch the intricate network of dependencies – that every tiny choice is connected, has a ripple effect, sometimes a ripple not felt or understood for generations. You start, from the very first chapter, to feel the responsibility of your own choices.

In chapter three they write: 'There is a term in American politics that is reserved for issues that are too difficult and emotionally charged for mainstream politicians to touch … it refers to the third rail of a railway track, the one that conducts the electricity to power the train: touch it and you will get zapped.' There is a third rail of cheese, and the gatekeepers of the cheese industry work very hard to keep consumer knowledge at a very superficial level. In the same vein as Benjamin Lewin in Wine Myths and Reality and Robert Walters in Bursting Bubbles, the Percivals lift the lid on cheese, getting beneath the trite image of happy cows on green grass. It's not all comfortable reading. You may, like me, feel the need to go move that chunk of cheese in your fridge into a hidden drawer.

Chapter four is about breed of cow. I fully acknowledge that my fascination here may be odd. I look out of my window every day at cows. I dodge cows and cowpats on my daily run with the dog. I grew up in a country where all my friends' dads imported semen in straws for their pedigree cows. But even I didn't realise that by 2008 the 30 million Holstein cattle around the globe came from just 35-60 individual beasts, and all the Holstein bulls listed for artificial insemination in North America are descended from just two bulls. And they're related. According to the records of genetics company Genex in the USA, Toystory, a Holstein bull, has delivered 2.5 million straws of semen and fathered half a million animals in 50 countries. We're entering genomic homogeneity here on a scale that is hard to comprehend. Holsteins, the ubiquitous dairy cows all over the world, are massive milk producers with increasingly worrying health problems. In the US particularly, they are a part of an intensively inbred dairy system. And their milk, wholly suited for bulk production and little flavour, is woefully inadequate for anything other than industrially produced cheese. The impact of this, and the near extinction of breeds uniquely adapted to terrain and multipurpose farming, are explored in detail. It's a sobering story.

The next chapter looks at feed. This is a bit like terroir and organics for wine. The links between feed and quality and flavour of cheese are compelling – although not that surprising if you're of the school that believes in terroir. Milk from grass has a softer texture, butter from grass is softer at room temperature, cheese from grass is more mellow. Cheese from diverse pastures is more complex. They consider why farmers don't necessarily feed their dairy cows this way, and what the impact is as a result. Through this whole book – which openly advocates an ideal – there is honest acknowledgement that the ideal is a bloody hard road to take: hard work, high risk, and often resulting in unsatisfactory skirmishes with the authorities. That aside, it was sort of thrilling to find out that 'the flowers that an animal eats in the field may well turn out to affect flavour by controlling the behaviour of the microbes within cheeses made from the animal's milk'. This is the effect of terpenes! It was also heart-breaking to read that the effects of silage and fertilisation of pasture (which I see practised in the fields not half a mile from me every year) are devastating: it takes 10–15 years to restore passable diversity in pasture; it takes 20-40 years to achieve an exceptional level of diversity. This is just some of what we've lost.

They look at the miraculous chemical structure of milk – components that simply should not hang together, but do, in a wonderful way – and how each part of the process changes and has an impact on that structure, therefore why each part of the process matters so much. It's another thread that runs through the book: how decisions on yield, feed, technology and time affect these structures, and how that affects the final cheese. Speed, in old-fashioned cheesemaking, is an enemy. Speed, in modern cheesemaking, is everything. You start to see the uncomfortable footprint of your own impatience.

The next three chapters go into microbes, risk and cultures. The three are inextricably connected. Microbes are what our 21st-century generations fear most. In a world of wealth and consumption and comfort, they are our biggest enemy. Martin Blaser's book, Missing Microbes, raises the red flag that in our deep fear of the invisible 'germs', we may be very close to destroying ecosystems that are essential for the survival of the human race. Microbes are absolutely essential to cheesemaking, and thanks to a few forward-thinking scientists and journalists, we're starting to come to terms with 'good' microbes and 'bad' microbes. Good equals cheese, kimchi, sauerkraut and yogurt. Bad equals listeria, tuberculosis, dysentery. The Percivals don't allow us those neat lines. Bacteria, they point out, can't be neatly ruled into classes of good v bad. We need to look at bacterial communities. It's about diversity. It's about the balance of and the relationship between different bacteria – something that the scientific community is only really on the edge of understanding. You cannot eliminate one 'bad' strain of bacteria without devastating the goodies, and even the baddies can sometimes have an important role to play in a balanced microbiome. Which is why they boldly liken the wholescale elimination of bacteria in modern milk and cheesemaking to bringing up children, saying that, 'the greater the structured brutality, the more consistent the output'. It's a thought. And you could apply the principle to grapes.

The chapter entitled 'Risk' is interesting. Some of the bacteria which may be present in flavourful, real cheese can cause leprosy, another strain causes tuberculosis. Are government regulatory bodies protecting us from imminent death thanks to their rigid hygiene laws? Or are they potentially wiping out good bacteria which themselves might be the only protection from pathogens? One of the Percivals has a penchant for statistics, it seems, and if you're worried about raw-milk cheese, this might help you decide: 'an American consumer would need to eat 19.13 pounds of raw-milk cheese to have the same risk of dying as they would have from driving a single mile in the United States', or, to put it another way: if an average American decided to eat only raw-milk cheese for a whole year, s/he'd be 6,000 times more likely to die in a car crash. But they're not trying to deny the risk of raw-milk cheese. They are very upfront about the inherent risks. There is an in-depth examination of the bacteria that can be found in raw-milk cheese and its possible outcomes, not always pretty.

One of the most compelling chapters is on cheese cultures. All milks, according to the Percivals, are pretty similar. But cheese has a way of amplifying terroir to the extent that milk mutes it. And it's the microbes that seem to carry that story of place from liquid to solid. So it's very sobering to learn that, according to DuPont, manufacturer of cheese cultures, 'every third cheese obtains its well-defined flavour and texture from our leading cultures'. If anything, this chapter is the most searching of all. It's the realisation that without even knowing it, we're already eating designer cheeses every day. I've not bought camembert for several years, complaining with slight shame to my husband that it tastes like mouldy cardboard, thinking that maybe I lack a certain continental flair. Turns out that camembert is a poster child for engineered cheese, inoculated, manipulated, not too far off the Dairy Lea triangles that no one admits to feeding their children. I felt a swell of pride. It seems I can recognise a fake cheese at 50 paces. Then I read about cheddar. The extra mature, supposedly good-quality brand, produced on a scale that I have hitherto not even considered considering, that I throw in with my weekly shop, is probably just as inoculated, manipulated, carefully engineered with a sweetly nutty, rounded culture, to appeal to my unthinking palate. What struck home quite hard is that these manufactured cultures produced by just a very small number of companies, are creating a homogeneity of cheese flavours – to the point where we can taste the same sweet nutty characteristic in cheddars, gorgonzolas and montereys. Apparently, it's the flavour people like in their cheese. It's like industrial wine all over again. Flavours are being engineered to suit market fashions. We're losing diversity, we're losing character, and we're all partly to blame.

There is so much else I could tell you about. There is a chapter on families and factories – why clocks changed everything. There is a chapter on expertise and the importance of instinct. There is an important chapter on the role of women. For centuries it was the women who made cheese, who were the keepers of knowledge passed on from mother to daughter. Along with bacteria and all things unpredictable and unmeasurable, they had no place in industrial cheesemaking except as factory workers and cleaners. Much knowledge and skill, never mind family income, was lost as a result.

There is a hard, honest chapter on markets: why money, basically, is at the heart of the change. And the book looks at the huge challenges faced by everyone in the industry, big and small. It's not a book which is going to propel you into cheesemaking unless (a) you're already insane, (b) you love high risk, (c) you never want to get rich. But throughout this intense book there are also moments you just have to laugh out loud: When Bronwen's dad gets totally desperate from the relentless bleating of her hormonal goat, and in the middle of a frantically busy day writes in his diary that he's abandoned his work: 'Driving the goat to get nailed'. There is the time they spend hours trying to track down a rare, elusive cheese, only to find it in an ignominious supermarket behind the coconut water and get stuck in a queue behind 'elderly pensioners concerned above all with securing their month's worth of dietary fibre'.

It's a book, as much as anything, about the tension between our modern obsession with perfect control, perfect hygiene, zero risk, and stewarding environment and flavour. In the ensuing 'holocaust of microbes', the Percivals question whether 'that which cheesemakers most desire [might have] also become their tragic flaw?' This is most emphatically not a call for more shit in the milk (as a cheesemaker delicately puts it). It's 'an entreaty to re-examine the current policy of blanket eradication and adopt holistic practices that contribute to robust, healthy, interesting milk for cheese'. Throughout the book they acknowledge the complex role of bacteria, yeasts and moulds, neither goodies or baddies, but just organisms getting on with their business of being. 'Nature is not benign, as some would have us believe, but it's not out to get us either … Although humans are incidental to a microbe's worldview, the invisible communities around, on and within us have the power to affect the outcome of our macroscopic pursuits for better or for worse.'

There is, within the book, a history not only of cheese but also of mankind. As anyone involved in the wine industry knows, many of the changes in the last 100 years are coming full circle as modern generations realise that there is much to be learned from old ways. We've seen this full-circle pattern start to play out in winemaking virtually everywhere, where younger generations are embracing both the best of technology and the best of tradition. Francis and Bronwen Percival seem to see that too: that it is not about doing away with technology and reversing modernisation, but that it's possible to harness technology and tradition together and move forward to a better place.

I've said too much. I'm wittering. Just go buy the book.

(PS I'm thinking about printing Lord Kitchener posters to stick on bus stops: 'Your country needs you. Read Reinventing the Wheel.')

*In order to get Salers cows to let down their milk, the calves are allowed to suckle for a few seconds before milking begins. The udders are not cleaned between suckling and milking. It was just one of the aspects of Salers traditional cheesemaking to which the public health officials objected.