Endangered cheeses: How do you save rare types?

Cheese board selection

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For many, eating cheese is one of life's great pleasures. But some of the world's rarest cheeses could soon disappear.

When greeted with the impressive sight of a cheeseboard in a top restaurant, the diversity of flavour, texture, smell, size, and shape of the artisanal cheeses presented, gives little clue to their dwindling numbers.

But the Slow Food organisation believes "thousands" of artisanal cheeses are disappearing around the world, along with the knowledge behind them.

It hopes to save endangered cheeses from specific territories and communities by adopting them into its Ark of Taste at its Cheese festival in Italy in September.

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France has been badly affected, as more than 50 traditional cheeses have disappeared in the last 30 years, says the Fromages de Terroirs Association.

The association's president, VĂ©ronique Richez-Lerouge wants the French to preserve their heritage of raw milk cheeses.

"We have to watch out for our traditions and methods, because if we don't, they will be destroyed.

"Cheese made with raw milk has quite a different taste. As with wine, it has all the flavour of its landscape in its taste and has nothing in common with an industrial cheese without substance," she says.

This is known as "terroir" - the taste of a particular region.

No-one really knows exactly when cheese-making began but in 2012 milk extracts were identified on Polish pottery dating back 7,500 years.

British cheeses in the Ark of Taste:

Red Leicester
  • Artisan Somerset Cheddar
  • Cheshire
  • Dorset Blue Vinny
  • Double-Curd Lancashire
  • Gloucester cheese
  • Traditional Caerphilly
  • Stichelton (named as traditional farmhouse 'stilton' in the Ark)
  • Traditionally made Red Leicester
  • Whey butter

It shows how important it is as part of food history.

So when a cheese is threatened with extinction, it seems counter-intuitive to eat more of it. But people should, says the American Cheese Society's Rebecca Sherman Orozco.

"An expression often heard within the food industry is, 'you've got to eat it to save it', and that certainly applies to cheese," she says.

Slow Food "encourages consumers to seek out these small-scale, artisanal products".

"Saving a cheese can take the form of simply making a conscious choice to seek it out when shopping at the market or when dining out," says Mr Paolo Di Croce, general secretary of Slow Food International.

Artisanal cheeses are at risk due to the abandonment of mountain pastures, overly restrictive regulations, long processing times, and tumultuous cheese markets, says Mr Di Croce.

"Decreases in natural biodiversity directly affect the amount of variety we can find in processed food products: if we lose species of herbs and grasses that are grazed upon by livestock, or if traditional sheep, goat and cattle that give us milk with different macronutrient profiles disappear, cheeses and the knowledge needed for their production will disappear too," he says.

"Many small-scale producers are being edged out because they cannot compete with larger industrial dairy producers, others face difficulties meeting ever-changing regulations regarding labelling, production site exporting or the use of raw milk.

"Other cheeses may be lost simply due to specific techniques or practices dying out with producers who have no one in the younger generations to take up their craft."

Raw milk cheeses with time-consuming processes like that of Serpa queijo, from Portugal are particularly under threat.

Also named in the Ark is Bryndza, a sheep's milk cheese dating back to the 18th Century, made in Slovakia on mountains close to the Polish border.

In Russia, the cheeses of the Republic of Tuva are at risk of extinction, as the number of both yaks and nomad shepherds are decreasing.

On the Italian island of Sardinia there's a less appealing process under threat.

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Casu Marzu, labelled the "world's most dangerous cheese", is made by infesting pecorino with cheese fly maggots, which eat their way through the cheese, creating a tangy, aromatic cream.

It was banned by the EU for a time for hygiene reasons, but its production has since continued.

EU laws have meant a fly in the ointment for a British cheese too.

There are nine British cheeses already in the Ark - including one named as traditionally made farmhouse "Stilton".

In 1996, Stilton received Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status, a European law that governs product name use tied to a certain area of production.

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After raw milk Stilton disappeared in 1988 when the last cheese-maker switched to using pasteurised milk, cheese-maker Joe Schneider and cheese-monger Randolph Hodgson from Neal's Yard Dairy teamed up to resurrect it.

But despite being geographically in the right area, the PDO meant they couldn't call their product Stilton, as Stilton must be made with pasteurised milk, says Joe Schneider.

So they began making raw milk cheese called "Stichelton" instead, adopting the original Anglo-Saxon name of the first town to produce Stilton.

"When Randolph and Neal's Yard approached me it was like the 'holy grail' of cheese making," says Joe Schneider.

"My hobby horse is restoring an extinct British cheese to the British people. Aficionados believe raw milk cheese expresses the very essence of pure British cheese.

"You get a depth of flavour, a symphony of flavours and much more length when eating Stichelton," he says.

Cheeses (clockwise): Pultost hanging in muslin, pultost in vat, Norwegian cow,  kechek el fouqara, Tuva cheese, cows in Norway, pultost Norwegian Pultost (top left) Lebanese kechek el fouqara (bottom right), and cheese from Tuva in Russia (middle bottom right) are all in the Ark of Taste

He has since applied to Defra to have the Stilton PDO amended to include raw milk cheeses.

Preserving ancient processes is important to those fighting for threatened cheeses.

Pultost, a centuries-old sour cow's milk Norwegian cheese is made without the use of rennet, and is flavoured with salt and caraway seeds.

In a small Lebanese village called Majedl el Zoun, farmers make kechek el fouqara or "poor man's cheese" from goats' milk yoghurt, flavoured with herbs and stored in jars with olive oil.

Armenia's motal cheese is left in brine for 40 days, seasoned and put into terracotta pots, sealed with beeswax, and then left upside down on ashes in cellars for six months.

Give cheese a chance:

Stilton

Cheese-making by-products are also at risk, like whey butter, made in the UK when cream is separated out from the whey.

John Carr from Grandma Singletons dairy in Lancashire says: "It's very labour intensive. You've got to make cheese to make the butter - we make just under a tonne a week," he says.

"It has a cheesy buttery taste. It's popular among people who know it. If they want it, it's what they want," he says.

The US is one country already protecting cheese, says Rebecca Sherman Orozco, as the society recognises some cheeses now as uniquely American, including Monterey Jack, Dry Jack, Brick Cheese, Brick Muenster, Colby, and Teleme.

Cheeses from all around the world will soon be travelling to Bra to contend for a position in the Ark.

"There are hundreds of us championing raw milk cheeses," says Joe Schneider.

"The challenges you face, it's not an easy life. No-one does it for money, but for the love of cheese."

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