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Get Ready to Change the Way You Look at Cheese

Sep. 8, 2015

David AsherIn the following interview, David Asher – organic farmer, goatherd, and author of The Art of Natural Cheesemaking – talks about his new book, traditional cheesemaking practices, his inspirations, and more.

Slow Food USA is partnering with Crown Finish Caves and Chelsea Green Publishing for an evening lecture – The Art of Natural Cheesemaking with David Asher in the Crown Heights cheese caves followed by food and drink by Snail of Approved Pixie and the Scout. The evening concludes Slow Food USA’s Eat It to Save It Week as part of the September 2015 Membership Drive.

You start your book boldly with the line, “Cheesemaking, as practiced in North America, is decidedly unnatural.” What is so unnatural about it and how do the methods you describe differ from mainstream commercial and even artisanal cheesemaking practices?

Artisan cheesemakers in North America have taken great strides towards developing a strong ethic for a small-scale, naturally made cheese; indeed we’ve come a very long way from the industrial cheesemaking that defined the American cheese landscape for the better part of the last century. However, some of the most important elements of cheesemaking have not changed despite the artisanal cheese movement; for artisanal and industrial cheesemakers make cheese according to very similar methodologies.

My main argument that contemporary cheesemaking practices are unnatural stems from the overwhelming use of laboratory raised, freeze-dried, direct-vat-inoculant cultures. The use of these freeze-dried cultures, which include dozens of single strain starter and ripening cultures, defines artisanal cheesemaking culture in North America; and it is here that there is vast room for improvement.

My methods of cheesemaking differ from standard artisanal and industrial practices because they work with milk’s indigenous microorganisms to make cheese. In my cheesemaking, I use only what many might call “wild” cultures (I prefer the idea that they are semi-domesticated). This diversity approach to cheesemaking works on a different premise than the monoculture approach of industrial cheesemaking in which specific cultures are added for making specific cheeses. In my process, given the right conditions, the natural cultures of microbiodiverse raw milk, come to define the development of a cheese.

David Asher
What inspired you to start using traditional methods to make natural cheese?

I question the status quo in all that I do. I cannot simply accept the standard way we do things as the only way. It is for this reason that I’ve essentially “dropped out” of our modern consumerist western culture, it is for this reason that I have become an organic farmer, and it is for this reason that I started using traditional methods to make cheese.

As an organic farmer, I strive for a natural approach. From the soil I cultivate, to the seeds I save, to the harvest I preserve, I work to preserve traditional ways. And when I started making cheese with the milk from my goats, I aimed for the same down-to-earth ideals.

When I started out in my cheesemaking adventures, I went looking to guidebooks and the Internet for advice on how to make cheese naturally and traditionally. All of the recipes I found instructed me to purchase freeze-dried cultures. I knew, intuitively, that traditional cheesemakers didn’t use these packaged cultures to make cheese, but there were no references, no resources for making cheese without them.

I didn’t know where to go to learn how to make cheese traditionally. I tried apprenticing with a number of cheesemakers, but was always disenchanted with their use of DVI cultures. From what information I could gather, it seemed most cheesemakers around the world had adopted the industrial approach. But I knew that there had to be another way, and I set out to rediscover it. It took many years of research and experimentation and many years of playing with raw milk and with kefir to be confident enough with my methods to write my own book on the subject.

Sandor Katz’s breakthrough book, Wild Fermentation, helped. At first, I was reluctant to read what I thought would be just another recipe book. But when I picked it up after much hesitation, I realized that the message of the book was aligned with my intentions of rediscovering traditional and natural foodways. And though the book didn’t exactly show me how to make cheese naturally, it helped motivate me to further my exploration of the simple beauty of natural cheesemaking.

David Asher
What styles of cheese are you most excited about making now?

I’ve been playing a lot recently with pre-drained lactic cheeses. This French method of cheesemaking, uniquely suited to goats milk, allows a cheesemaker to make a clay-like curd that can be molded to any shape they desire, then cured to develop its natural Geotrichum rind. This process produces fascinating textures for the interestingly shaped cheeses.

One such cheese I’ve been making a lot of lately is seine de nounou, which translated from the French means ‘wet-nurse’s breast’. It is, as you may have guessed, a breast shaped cheese, complete with nipple, that develops an intricately wrinkled skin – reminiscent, I suppose, of those of the long past wet-nurses. I should say that this cheese is not a breast fetish, but a celebration of milk. In my mind it equates the nourishing and life giving qualities of milk from across all species.

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