A fromager discovered that playing Slayer to cheese makes it even more delicious.
Illustration by Jordan Bogash/GOOD.
THE GOOD NEWS:
Small farms can compete with multinational agribusiness with a lot of ingenuity — and a little bit of metal.
In 2016, for several weeks in Auckland, New Zealand, a strange, round-the-clock heavy metal concert was played for an audience of soft cheeses. It was a science experiment engineered to flout the dairy elite’s stuffy conventions, a wild-eyed scheme with a seemingly unwholesome goal: The shrieking guitar riffs and ferocious drumming of bands like Slayer, Obituary, and Cannibal Corpse were meant to imbue the food with the music’s dark spirit, thereby creating the world’s very first heavy metal cheese.
It all started when fromager Calum Hodgson read about how the bacteria in his cheeses react to environmental stimuli like light and vibration. Intense exposure to music, he theorized, could bring out new flavors and textures in his products. He enlisted the help of local producer Phillipa White of Sentry Hill Organics, and after hundreds of hours of thunderous thrashing, The Cheese With No Name was born.
“[It] has a big umami flavor,” says Hodgson. “And a bit of a creamy breakdown on the rind so when you cut it, it doesn’t just shit itself and run.”
[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]Cheese is a talisman of simple things.[/quote]
The 40-year-old cheesemonger, who goes by “The Curd Nerd” on social media, is no scientist. But the notion that music could affect the taste of his products isn’t that far-fetched. Several studies show that steadily applied vibration from sound can alter bacterial growth patterns and metabolite production. There are sewage treatment plants in Europe that play Mozart throughout their facilities, theorizing that the music speeds microbial digestion of waste.
There’s even a fromage-related precedent: An Austrian monastery puts the finishing touches on its cheese by maturing the wheels to Gregorian chants. But “unlike the music of the monks at the Abbey,” says Hodgson, “I’m interested in the work of the devil.”
Hodgson is at least half-joking, but the longtime metalhead did have mischief in mind when he chose the particular musical genre. He’d signed on to run “a well-heeled tasting for conservative people,” he says. “My agenda was to be able to play heavy metal to a bunch of conservative people for my own enjoyment.”
He wanted to knock the monocles off the starchy crowd, but “they fucking loved it actually, to give credit,” notes Hodgson. “We had a control batch too, and both were made on the same day. One was matured to the music and the other wasn’t. So we had them taste side by side blindly,” he says. “Folks were able to pick out the metal batch — and it was the one they really liked.”
A few days later, he’d sold out the whole batch of The Cheese With No Name.
The Cheese With No Name. Photo courtesy of Calum Hodgson.
Hodgson left a job in horticulture about 15 years ago to get really, really, really into cheese. Since then, he’s worked in basically every aspect of the fromage game, from making cheese to hawking it at farmers’ markets and fancy trade shows to judging at cheese competitions. He says he “probably [eats] a couple kilos of cheese per week.”
The creamy, gooey, nutty, stinky objects of his affection aren’t just his job; they’re his philosophy. “Cheese,” he says, “is a talisman of simple things.”
A few years ago, peeved by the pretentious airs around cheese and other fancy foods — what he calls “artisanal wankery” — Hodgson decided to start pushing back with a little wankery of his own, replacing the pedigrees and high-minded origin stories with stories that reflected his own interests and journey through the world of cheese.
Take the “magic mushroom” Hodgson produces with producer Kaikoura Cheese — a goat fromage blanc, molded into a mushroom shape and painted by hand with activated charcoal. The beautiful, 2-3 ounce cheeses are made annually to coincide with the local growing season for hallucinogenic psilocybin mushrooms. “Turn on, tune in, taste cheese,” wrote Hodgson on Instagram.
But while he certainly seems to get a kick out of populist needling and being the Barnum of his own brie-ring circus (sorry about that one, everyone), attention grabbers like his heavy metal cheese are more than fun novelty stunts. They’re also a key tool in Hodgson’s quest to champion local farms, traditional whole foods, and small New Zealand cheese producers.
[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]I kind of felt sorry for them. The [music] was on 24/7 — it was kind of like torture.[/quote]
For the last four years, Hodgson has been working with importer and fine foods purveyor Sabato to raise the profile of New Zealand dairy, selling and celebrating local cheese and fostering local cheesemaking talent.
If they’re working to help a small operation scale up, for example, eyebrow-raising projects bring in new customers and media attention. “We don’t have any marketing budget, so I’m competing with commodity food producers who have marketing teams, writers, designers, the whole thing,” Hodgson says. “I’m all of those people.”
He tells potential local vendors, “I just want you to make the best cheese you can. With the support of the business I’m with, we’ll make everything easy for you to get paid on-time, paid in cash — whatever you need.”
Hodgson says that White, his heavy metal cheese partner, was a prodigious cheese producer who was starting to get recognition for her work when the two met. Looking to turn her home operation into a bigger business, she signed on with Hodgson to develop products and navigate the rigorous health and safety requirements mandated on making raw milk cheese.
For her first commercial batch, the one that would eventually become The Cheese With No Name, she chose to create a local clone of a perail, a soft French ewe’s milk bloomy-rind variety. At the time, Hodgson thought this was way too ambitious for a first commercial run. “But Phillipa is awesome, and she fucking proved me wrong,” he says. “She sent up this cheese, and I was like, ‘Holy fuck.’ It was just a really good pilot.”
All they needed now was a little bit of a twist, a secret ingredient. With his designs set on flipping some wigs at his upcoming highbrow tasting, Hodgson decided that ingredient should be metal.
“Phillipa hates heavy metal,” notes Hodgson, though, luckily, she recognized the appeal of the idea. “Her kids even got involved in setting up the playlists. At one point, I kind of felt sorry for them. The [music] was on 24/7 — it was kind of like torture.”
After the project was kicked off, Hodgson says he regularly “phoned into the maturing room to listen to music with the cheese.”
Hodgson based the shape of this cheese on “magic” mushrooms. Courtesy Callum Hodgson.
Hodgson suspected the cheese bacteria, at least, would share his taste in music. Like him, he decided, The Cheese With No Name’s cocktail of microbes, including Penicillium candidum and various species of Brevibacterium, were “bogans” (a somewhat derogatory slang term used in New Zealand and Australia for working-class types) and thus likely to be rock fans. “That was my cultural fabric,” Hodgson says, and it’s why to this day he thinks cheese “shouldn’t be fucking fancy. It’s just a peasant food, a whole food.”
“My dad’s a union guy. [The] proudest moment in his career was pulling a strike,” he continues. “My revolutionary streak is a sort of tribute to my dad.”
Part of this tribute was naming his blog Cheese Solidarity. Coining that term and using it as a hashtag was also a “reflection of all the kindness people have shown me in my pursuit of getting closer to my muse.”
Hodgson holds The Cheese With No Name. Photo courtesy of Callum Hodgson.
Recognizing that not everybody shares his hunger for headbanging, since The Cheese With No Name’s debut last year, “we did some other batches matured to the Pixies and a batch of blue cheese matured with jazz, which was named after Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue,’” says Hodgson. “There’s more in the pipeline for this kind of experiment.”
To start with, Hodgson and White will be reprising their original heavy metal maturation recipe in May 2018 for the Great Eketahuna Cheese Festival, a showcase the fromager is helping organize for what he calls “local cheese weirdos.” Promising a lineup of cheese producers, farmers, and a couple of microbiologists who can weigh in on Hodgson’s experiments, the event’s attendees will flaunt their foodstuffs, share industry knowledge, and generally revel in gastronomic abundance.
Hodgson might be the member of the New Zealand cheese community most known for his unorthodox projects, but he believes that anyone with the passion and drive to get into his business “has to be somewhat crazy.” Against giant, multinational competitors and modern regulatory standards, small food producers are “really up against the wall now.”
“I would argue that anyone in this industry is a renegade by default,” says Hodgson. “I just give them a bigger platform to make more noise.”