The Food Snoop
By Masha Gutkin

Speak, cheesemonger

AN ARTICLE ON the Common Dreams Web site (www.commondreams.org) recently raised the alarm about Prozac levels in British water. Apparently, that little helper pill is so heavily prescribed that it's leaching into river systems and groundwater. Somehow this turned my thoughts to cheese. Lest this seem like total free association, let me hasten to say that for me, Prozac and cheese are pretty much synonymous. This particular dairy product – from youthful, innocent ricotta to worldly Limburger – always lifts my spirits.

The American Cheese Society (www.cheesesociety.org) held its 21st annual conference over the summer in Milwaukee, so for edification on its doings (as well as broader musings on that panacean substance, cheese) I turned to Gordon Edgar, cheesemonger for Rainbow Grocery and a local member of the ACS. Unfortunately, this year's cheese conference was missing an illustrious figure, the Cheese Nun, who hitherto has been a fixture at the yearly events, toting a microscope for cheese tourists to get up close and personal with their favorite substance. But more on the Cheese Nun another time.

Bay Guardian: Tell me about the American Cheese Society.

Gordon Edgar: It's an organization of farmers, cheese makers, cheese retailers and distributors, and, I guess, people who just love cheese.... I've been a member for six or seven years. At a time when it looked like the FDA was going to change the laws about the importation of raw-milk cheese, they did a lot of education and lobbying about safety issues concerning raw-milk cheese. They were talking about banning raw-milk cheeses altogether around three years ago. It's still out there, but it seems like it's been killed off.

BG: What cheeses can't be imported?

GE: Any raw-milk cheese that's not aged over 60 days at under 38 degrees Fahrenheit can't legally be imported. There's higher incidence of food-borne pathogens in raw-milk cheese, obviously. Cheese in general is a very safe food product, certainly as compared to meat. The incidence of food-borne illness from cheese is very low in the food business. There's three different types of milk: raw [unpasteurized], thermalized, and pasteurized. Thermalized is basically the process where you heat the milk to a certain nonpasteurization temperature to maintain the integrity of, but not kill, the milk. It leaves the milk retaining a lot of its original flavor. It's almost impossible for me to even know what's happened to a cheese in the process. Certain cheeses I'm always going to know are raw-milk cheeses, and certain ones I'll always know are pasteurized. But there's a big gray area of cheeses that might have been thermalized.

BG: Tell me about the indigenous cultures and rennet panel at last year's cheese conference.

GE: Cheese is basically milk, salt, rennet, and culture. The culture is part of what gives cheese its particular flavor. Cultures are usually lab-created now. For instance, for Swiss cheese, the lab culture will be a copy of what they've been using to create Swiss cheese in the Alps for centuries. But some people also make their own cultures. You do that basically by souring milk. Obviously, a lab-created culture is more uniform, whereas an indigenous culture is more unique, but you might have to adjust your recipe over a year of cheese making as your culture gets older or diluted. You get a whole aging room full of cheese that isn't right, and you're pretty screwed. It's a version of crop failure. At the culture factories now, they make all sorts of culture recipes. They've made a lot of advancements in the technology of making cultures to order.

BG: If you were to advise those starting to familiarize themselves with cheese, what would you suggest?

GE: Number one, taste a lot of cheese – see what you do and don't like. Ask questions of your local cheese seller. Also, I'd say The Cheese Primer, by Steve Jenkins, is really easy to read and good for nonprofessionals.

BG: What's the most expensive cheese in the world?

GE: Probably the Italian maggot cheese that doesn't get imported here. You can tell it's still good if the maggots aren't dead. There was actually an article about it in the Chronicle a couple of years ago. The maggot cheese is not even legal in Italy, or so I've heard. We do not sell the maggot cheese at Rainbow. That's some crazy shit. Cheesemongers usually don't like to say the m word.

Tune in next time for more on the Cheese Nun and Gordon Edgar's thoughts on cheese. In the meantime, I'll be humming "She's always late for everything / Except for every meal."

E-mail Masha Gutkin at lydialeapfrog@yahoo.com.