Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Bronwen and Francis Percival's "Reinventing the Wheel"

Bronwen Percival is the cheese buyer at Neal’s Yard Dairy in London. She initiated the biennial Science of Artisan Cheese Conference and is cofounder of the website microbialfoods.org. In addition to serving on the editorial board of the Oxford Companion to Cheese, she recently edited an English translation of the leading French textbook on raw-milk microbiology for cheesemakers.

Francis Percival writes on food and wine for The World of Fine Wine and was named Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year in 2013 and Pio Cesare Wine and Food Writer of the Year 2015. His work has also appeared in Culture, Decanter, Saveur, and the Financial Times. Together with Bronwen, he cofounded the London Gastronomy Seminars.

They applied the “Page 99 Test” to their new book, Reinventing the Wheel: Milk, Microbes, and the Fight for Real Cheese, and reported the following:
While Reinventing the Wheel is at face value a story about “the fight for real cheese,” it also grapples with how agriculture and the food that we eat has changed over the last hundred and fifty years and the unintended consequences of systems designed with only partial understanding.

Page 99 is a perfect distillation of these themes, and finds us exploring milk microbiology, and how the liquid milk market has driven cheesemakers to adopt a quality standard that is particularly maladapted to the quality and safety of raw milk cheese. In a world where bacteria are conflated with dirt and disease, milk production standards have followed suit, rewarding low total bacterial counts as a quality mark:
Milk with depleted microbial biodiversity and a low total bacterial count, made up of a large proportion of spoilage bacteria and a minute number of pathogens, will perform brilliantly on analyses designed to measure suitability for pasteurization and potential shelf life. For a raw-milk cheesemaker, however, this milk would be the first ingredient in a recipe for disaster.
With recent advances in understanding the role of microbes within complex systems, we have begun to realize that health (whether we are referring to the soil, the gut microbiome, or to raw milk for cheese) is intimately linked to the proper makeup and balance of microbial communities rather than their absence. This is one of the fundamental paradigm shifts of the early twenty-first century, and promises to transform not just agriculture and food production, but medicine as well. But these are powerful forces that are not yet completely understood:
It is important to note that this is not a call for the revalorization of filth, for an anything-goes microbial philosophy where a bit more shit in the milk just adds to the flavor.
Microbiologists and raw-milk cheesefarmers are at the forefront of this revolution, working together to find ways to produce milk with a healthy community of microbes while shutting the door against pathogens.

But Reinventing the Wheel is not just about microbiology and the microbiome. On a broader level, it is about how ecologies on multiple levels, from breed and feed to healthy and diverse communities of cheesemakers and cheesemongers themselves, have been disrupted by a pervasive single-variable, yield-centric view of the world. The advent of highly-inbred cattle breeds and loss of field and crop biodiversity are problems that impact not just small-scale farmers and environmentalists, but pose a significant threat to the future of intensive agriculture as well. Rather than a book about marginal food production systems, it is an exploration of the modern world and the food that we all eat, every day.
Learn more about the book and authors.

--Marshal Zeringue