Food Bigger Than The Plate

This week's blog comes from cheesemonger Sebastian. Prior to becoming a cheesemonger, Sebastian had worked as a chef. A career highlight was importing 100kg of white asparagus a week from Germany to serve in his eponymous supper club The White Asparagus. Sebastian came along to one of our Cheesemaking Fundamentals classes last year. What he saw there captured his imagination so much that a few weeks later he joined the team behind the slate at our Borough Market shop! 

I recently went to visit the V&A Museum’s exhibition FOOD: Bigger than the Plate. The exhibition splits the complex global food system into 4 categories: composting, farming, trading and eating. Exhibits include building materials made from cow dung, a raw-milk vending machine and a fermentation station. It showcases communities, artists, businesses and inventors' responses to working with all aspects of food.  

As a cheesemonger selling cheese in a beautifully functional shop in Borough Market, it is always interesting to see the design world’s response to the complexities of our food systems. Of particular interest was the piece Selfmadean exhibit using bacteria from celebrities’ nether regions to make cheese. Gross, dangerous, outright impossible? Not at all. Let me explain.  

Since humans discovered that bacteria caused illness, we have been trying to kill them. Through exposing bacteria to high heats (using techniques like pasteurisation), we have successfully halted the spread of pathogens (harmful bacteria) and saved millions of lives. However, bacteria also play a crucial role in digestion and protecting us. There is now a growing body of evidence to suggest our microbiome affects our mood, weight and personality. In other words, if we pasteurised ourselves, we might be dead.  

There are a huge range of factors which can affect the flavour of a cheese. In cheesemaking today, one of these variables can be the starter culture the cheesemaker uses. Using a starter culture is a relatively modern practice, involving the introduction of “domesticated” strains of bacteria at the beginning of the cheesemaking process. These bacteria are cultured in a laboratory and the strains tend to encourage the milk to ferment in a more controlled way. What I came to realise from the exhibition is that the bacteria found in cheese is like the bacteria we find on our bodies, which is why some of the odours are similar.  I learned that when brevibacterium eat, they break down an amino acid into gas. In certain situations, the smell of this gas can disgust – if it comes from smelly feet – but delights – if it comes from a washed-rind cheese. As in all things we taste, psychology and context often play a bigger part than we acknowledge.  

By making cheese with a starter culture processed from the dark, warm places of a celebrity's microbiome, Christina Agapakis (a synthetic biologist) and Sissel Tolaas (an artist who works with smell) have brought to life our complicated relationship with bacteria.  

This got me thinking about how as a cheesemonger I can find myself faced with a similar squeamishness around raw or unpasteurised milk cheeses. Some people deem raw milk cheese too dangerous to eat. I think this comes from a fear founded in the belief that bacteria is inherently harmful. What I sometimes find difficult to get across to a customer is that if the cheesemaker pasteurises their milk, the cheese isn’t necessarily safer. Animal husbandry, the dairy’s hygiene standards and level of acidity during the make are a better indicator of how safe their cheese is. That is why I believe the work that Neal’s Yard Dairy is so important. The support they offer cheesemakers so that they can mitigate risks and keep to exacting standards is vital.  

I believe that Selfmade is a challenging piece of art for anyone with an interest in food and microbiology, not just cheesemongers. The question it poses about context of perception and flavour is really thought provoking. As cheesemongers we are constantly working with customers perceptions of flavour. The number of times people have said they don’t enjoy goat’s cheese, then sample an Innes Brick and go home with one in their bag is astounding. Good cheese just like good design can encourage a change of perspective. I hope that while challenging our squeamishness, Selfmade has enhanced our appreciation of the microbial world. 

Food: Bigger than the Plate runs until 20th October. For more information and to buy tickets, click here