Bacteria Are Amazing: Photos of the Ecology of Cheese

Take the closest look at the inner workings of the best cheese, and learn what this complex science means for the FDA's crackdown on raw milk cheeses.

Microbiologist Rachel Dutton has been exploring the incredible life forms growing on some of the world's finest fermented dairy products. She samples specific colonies from cheese rinds, grows the microbes on a petri dish in the lab, and then photographs the bacterial ecology, which is responsible for each cheese's distinct texture, flavor, and smell.

Traditionally, these cultures came from the milk itself or from cheese-making equipment, so microbiology, despite being invisible for some 5,000 years, is intrinsic to cheesemaking and to a particular cheese's place of origin—its terroir.

European cheeses, like Gorgonzola, Camembert, or Roquefort, tend to be standardized by region, often subject to a complex set of European Union regulations, as anthropologist Heather Paxson told Harvard magazine, whereas the American artisan cheesemaking renaissance relies on the invention of terroir and emphasizes individuality. (After all, we've only been making cheese here for 300 years and we're hard-working folk).

On a microbiological level, it would be interesting to know if the bacterial strains necessary for a Vermont cheddar made from pasteurized milk are more or less complex than those needed to create a geographically-protected Italian Parmigiano-Reggiano?

The question might sound esoteric, but it could become important for cheese makers and raw milk producers—as the United States Food and Drug Administration considers new regulations for raw milk cheeses. The current rules, somewhat arbitrarily, prohibit the sale of raw milk cheeses aged less than 60 days (although the age of a cheese is no guarantee for eliminating harmful microbes). Let's hope any added scientific scrutiny doesn't trump the wonder and complexity of cheese, which we still have a long ways to go towards unraveling their pungent, tangy microbiological mysteries.

Top photo: Jasper Hill Farm's Bayley Hazen Blue
Middle photo: Cabot's Cloth-bound Cheddar
Bottom photo: Cowgirl Creamery's Mt. Tam.

All photos by Rachel Dutton. The collection first appeared in Culture magazine. You should subscribe to the magazine here.

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