Studying Up on Milk

This year, at Slow Food’s Cheese, I noticed a new development that for once I had time to take advantage of, workshops on milk production.

I’ve been going to Cheese every year since something frightening like 2003 as part of the Neal’s Yard Dairy contingent.  Consequently my time has been spent on retailing, resting, staying up late eating pizza at Da Ugo or in club Macabre (when it still existed) and then necking strong but delicious coffees the following morning.
This time, however, I was here with purely the aim of furthering my cheese education.  Where better to comparative taste Gorgonzolas and Taleggios?  Where better to explore the concept of what a traditional recipe or make actually tasted like in the interests of developing the recipes I’d been trialling at the School of Artisan Food? Where better to learn more about cheese?  To which end, I trawled Slow Food’s website for tastings and discovered the milk workshops.
I’d helped Randolph Hodgson prep some of his own talks at Slow Food workshops in the past which were purely cheese focussed and with an element of pairing wine / beer etc and cheese.  I’d found them interesting but not hugely technical (not a reflection, I should explain, on what Randolph talked about – he was easily the most technical person there, it’s the other speakers who were a bit more pedestrian).  The milk workshops held in the piazza XX Settembre were more technical sounding, geared towards cheesemakers and milk producers and while there were some things that I didn’t feel the need to attend (a talk on adulteration of food and labelling regulations didn’t thrill me), there were some that were most definitely relevant.
The topics I thought it was a good idea to get clued up on were: animal welfare, the importance of pasture, milk quality that goes beyond simply whether it is raw or pasteurised, sustainable agriculture and the role of fermentation.

A white board displayed around town with loads of technically useful cheese facts and recipes on.  Just there for you to copy and to spread the cheesey knowledge.  This sort of generosity of information in the interests of the bigger picture is typical of Cheese.
It lead to a hugely interesting few days and a lot of food for thought and luckily for me, the happier the cows, bees and environment it would appear the happier the cheesemaker.  Let me elaborate:
The talk on animal welfare with speakers from Compassion inWorld Farming started by stating that animal health and human health are linked and animals farmed in a higher welfare manner produce better milk.  There are obvious examples of this:  animals on pasture have less instances of mastitis and cleaner udders than animals that live indoors.  To put it bluntly, in the fields, if they need to defaecate, they just walk away from it and to a nice clean bit of pasture.  In the sheds they can’t do that and although their bedding will be replaced frequently during the day, there’s more than just a chance that they will end up lying down on dirty straw at some point.   However, it goes beyond cleanliness.  The milk from animals that are grazed on pasture has been found to be more healthy with better levels of Omega 3 fatty acids and betacarotene.

The talk on pasture discussed milk composition in more detail, citing EU funded research projects that have demonstrated the effects of each different herb or grass or wild flower variety that the animals graze on the composition of the fats and the number of flavour ethanols in the milk and also its vitamin content.  One speaker, Roberto Rubino from ANFOSC (the Associazione Nazionale di FormaggiSotto Il Cielo), had particularly interesting data to demonstrate the different fatty acid composition between animals eating oats, borage, hawthorn (really), wild geranium and plenty of other plants.  His point was not that there was any one plant that was the cow / goat or sheep superfood but that the bigger variety the better.  Just like humans, a varied diet is better for the animal but we are able to reap the benefits of that through the composition of the milk.  He went on to also explain that the animals’ diet also affects the cholesterol in their milk.
Contrary to the thinking on nutrition that I remember growing up which had us ditching butter in favour of margarine and believing all cholesterol to give us heart attacks, current thinking now considers cholesterol a necessary part of the diet, provided it is not oxidised.  A diet of pasture contains 4 or 5 times as many antioxidants as the diet of animals on a zero grazing indoor farming system.  In other words, they consider that you can drink milk and eat butter and cheese without worrying about heart disease, provided it’s farmed a certain way.
A speaker also from the European Forum on NatureConservation and Pastoralism explained that the value of mountain pasture is precisely that it hasn’t been planted or farmed.  As a result, the plants are far more diverse than they would be even if planted with the most complex herbal seed mix.  They quoted that an intensively farmed and planted field would contain 2 or 3 different species whereas you’d expect to find 50 to 100 species in natural grasslands. They even explained that animals left to graze and pick and choose will even eat shrubs and leaves off trees sometimes for a bit of variety (presumably hence the hawthorn research presented by Roberto Rubino).
During the talk on raw milk, a speaker called Tom Baas a biologist from the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture in Germany (FIBL)talked about how research into raw milk in the past 10 to 12 years has shown a change in attitudes to unpasteurised dairy.  Statistical research demonstrated that raw milk could actually assist in children developing a healthy immune system and lower incidences of asthma, allergies and even hayfever.  Some of these points were rather circumstantial evidence, farmers children seem to be healthier than others, however, Basel University has done over 10 studies into the possibilities of raw milk against atopic conditions and other health benefits including that of a fatty acid called CLA (conjugated linoleic acid).  Their studies showed that CLA which is produced by herbivores will be different depending on the animals diet.  When fed to rats, the grass fed CLA did not make the animals put on weight or develop fatty liver while the CLA from animals on a different diet did.  CLA is present in raw and pasteurised milk but the heating process will affect it and at least make it less effective if not actually contributing to weight gain actively.Further to this taste studies had been carried out also assessing the smell, taste, aftertaste, viscosity and visual aspect of 4 different milks, 2 of which were organic (1 actually biodynamic) and 2 intensively farmed.  While the differences were subtle, a distinct difference was found.
The message of all of this?  Raw milk, varied pasture that is left to grow as naturally as possible, grass fed as much as possible will be the healthiest dairy food for you and will also have the best flavour potential for the cheesemaker.  Of course they were speaking in fairly black and white terms and you’ll find conscientious extensive farmers who do feed concentrates and silage who also manage to give their animals a varied diet while not using natural and unplanted grasslands.
Finally we moved to the role of fermentation.  This was an idea I’d first heard proposed at courses that Ivan Larcher teaches.  You have this amazing milk, with wonderfully farmed animals and all those aromatic flavour ethanols waiting to be liberated.  How to make the most of it? Well using a naturally fermented starter.  Just as the natural grassland is more diverse, so is the naturally cultured soured milk from your raw milk.  Most commercial starters will contain possibly 1 or 2 different organisms.  The more complex ones perhaps 4 or 5.  Your own natural culture from your raw milk will have many more and also all the ripening cultures too (yeasts and moulds).  It also renders your product truly a local and unique one.  The speakers gave a brief method for producing your own soured milk starter, something they called ‘latte inesto’ and tasted a range of 4 cheeses chosen to demonstrate that the latte inesto starter produced the more complex flavour.  Again, I’ve done enough tastings to know you choose your cheeses to demonstrate the point you want them to make so while the tasting was dramatic, it was also staged to be so.  The difficulty of naturally occurring bacteria is that you can’t be sure of what will grow, but if you have followed certain guidelines you will maximise your chances of cultivating good starter cultures rather than a big bunch of spoilage bacteria instead.
Most interesting for me, as we research our milk at Nettlebed, was the discussion on where the natural lactic acid bacteria come from.  The research in this case has not been carried out on dairy animals but on humans but it is extrapolated that other mammals will have similar processes.  The baby’s gut is populated with the appropriate bacteria by the colostrum phase but after that is finished, the milk produced is sterile.  Any lactic acid bacteria and other flora that get into the milk from that stage onwards are transferred from the skin of the udders which will be picked up from dust particles on their food and in the pasture, dust particles from the soil (this would be bad news things like E.coli and Listeria) or illness which would be mastitis (Staphylococcus aureus).
Further to that, a cheesemaker asked a question.  He had been making cheese with latte inesto for 20 years but recently in response to demands from the milk dairies he had been trying to reduce his total bacterial counts.  Ever since the counts went down, his latte inesto stopped working.  It wouldn’t sour and when cultured, the only thing that grew was coliforms (gas producing bacteria from the gut – harmless but no help to the cheesemaker).  It appeared that in pre-dipping the animals’ teats before milking, they were removing a healthy population of lactic acid bacteria and although there were very few coliforms present, in the absence of any competition, these became dominant.  By trying to clean up what had been essentially clean milk before, they had created ‘dead milk’.  The advice was to stop pre-dipping and do all they could to ensure lactic acid bacteria got back onto the teats (this can include wiping with hay before milking, making sure the animals are getting hay or natural grass as pasture) to make the milk come alive again.
In summary, what did I learn?  Well to sum it up in one sentence: diversity, diversity, diversity and leave it to nature as much as possible.  Naturally managed grasslands and animals kept as close to their natural state as possible will produce happy animals giving milk that is better both nutritionally and in flavour profile and potential.  Then allow your naturally produced milk to sour with what nature in its bounty has given you and you’ll get cracking good cheese!  In theory anyway….
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