Women in Cheese: Reinventing The Wheel

In this blog post, Bronwen Percival explains the evolution of the thinking behind her new book Reinventing The Wheel. The book is available for purchase in our shop.

From the moment that I began working at Neal’s Yard Dairy, just before Christmas in 2005, one of the things I found most exciting was the role of the cheesemonger as educator. The moment when cheeses are tasted and discussed across the cheese counter is much more than a simple retail transaction. It is a dialogue that allows information to be passed back and forth: the customer might discover a new cheese, or the monger receive feedback that can be passed back to the cheesemaker.

Cheeses that improve are quickly rewarded with better sales, problems are identified, and batch variation is revealed: we learn to taste together. Within those transactions, which last for only a couple of minutes, a lot remains unsaid. In fact, I think the best cheesemongers often say the least—this is not the place for spouting facts. But there is so much that is fascinating about cheese, particularly when it can be shared in the right context.

Now, as the technical manager at Neal’s Yard Dairy, I am often asked for book recommendations, and while there are many brilliant cheese buying guides on the market, and fascinating treatises like Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking that explore the entire world of food, there has not been a book about cheese that I could point people towards that provided the right balance between cool science, historical context, and engaging storytelling.

So, along with my husband Francis—who teaches classes for the Dairy and writes about food and wine—we set out three years ago to write that book. What a journey it has been! So many of the things I thought I knew about cheese, the stories that we in the industry tell ourselves, were dispelled as we travelled, read journal articles and old manuscripts, and talked with scientists and cheesemakers from around the world about their work with and passion for farmhouse cheese.

The book is organised according to the life of a cheese, starting with the grasses and the animals, and moving on to the role of microbes and the cheesemaking process, as well as the pitfalls and complexities facing the cheesemaker. We look at things like:

  • How all of the world’s diverse cheeses can be made from the same three ingredients: milk, rennet, and salt
  • The relationship between farming practices and cheese flavour: do cheeses really taste different when animals graze on pasture versus when they live indoors? And does breed make a difference?
  • The microbiome of cheese: farming for microbes is a hot topic, and cheesemakers are working to capture the uniqueness of their farms in the flavour of their cheeses by encouraging the beneficial microbes already in their milk
  • How we think about cheese and risk—and why eating raw milk cheese is 6000 times safer than driving a car
  • Why classic British territorial cheeses are so different from the styles of hard cheese made in continental Europe

The title of our book is Reinventing the Wheel: Milk, Microbes, and the Fight for Real Cheese. Perhaps a copy—or a ticket to a tasting that we are doing on February 3rd, which explores some of its themes—would make a fitting gift for the turophile in your life.

You may also enjoy tuning into this episode of BBC Radio 4's Food Programme, where Francis and I explore some of the ideas from the book and how they relate to the history and future of cheddar.

Lastly, if you’d like to read a little more, here’s an excerpt in which we talk about so-called ‘real cheese’ and why it matters:

''There is great precedent for the cheesemonger as activist and advocate. In the mid-twentieth century, the dark days for the British cheese industry that saw the retreat from farmhouse production and the rise of the supermarkets as the dominant force within the industry, there was one retailer who stood out.
Major Patrick Rance had fought the Nazis, but in peacetime he found himself engaged in another existential struggle, this one based out of his modest cheese shop in Streatley, not far from London. With his monocle and aristocratic connections, he cut an eccentric figure, but he had a clear vision of his aspirations for cheese. In his Great British Cheese Book (1982), he outlined the problem: from 1948 to 1974, there had been a drop in the number of farms making Cheddar in the southwest of England from sixty-one to thirty-three. (As we write this, in 2016, there are only five.) He also proposed a solution. Taking his inspiration from the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) and the Campaign for Real Bread, he noted that “fortunate and few are those within reach of Real Cheese to go with it” and called for a similar movement for cheese. Rance’s fight was with factory production.
For him, the enemy—the unreal cheese—was the mountain of vacuum-packed blocks that was steadily replacing the United Kingdom’s established territorial cheeses. We agree with his sentiment, but following his inspiration, this book pushes further. The risk of defining and essentialising the real, of claiming to separate the authentic and the fake, is that it becomes an exercise in arbitrary exclusion.
CAMRA, as successful as it has been at celebrating and reinvigorating British cask ales, also stands accused of stifling the British craft brewing scene with its insistence that only cask-conditioned ales are “real.” That is not our intention; it would be absurd to claim a single style of cheese as uniquely real. Rather, for us, real cheese is a manifestation of wider biodiversity, a food that exploits all of the resources and raw materials of the farm, from the botanical to the microbial.
It is an acknowledgment that dairy farming and cheesemaking are one and the same process, and of the moral hazard that comes from any intervention—whether it be aggressive use of fertilizers, pasteurization of milk, or insensitive use of microbial cultures—that obliterates the link between the cheese and the environment from which it is fashioned.
At best, these interventions are simply a patch; at worst, they threaten to undermine the sustainability of the entire industry. An opportunity lies before us. Advances in our understanding of biology have given us the tools to begin to understand and work with natural ecosystems at every level.
Evidence is accruing of the social and environmental benefits associated with food systems that look beyond the production of faceless commodity outputs. Real cheese is subversive in its simplicity: it reunites farming and flavour. And in doing so, it rewards diversity and sustainability at every level.''