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The Oldways Cheese Coalition’s mission is “to inspire people everywhere to embrace the joys of the old ways of eating traditional cheeses in healthy amounts.” To help consumers everywhere, the OCC and its Advisory Committees have written Things to Look For in a Traditional Cheese to explain what we mean by traditional cheeses and why they are important.

With help from cheese experts, including the OCC Advisory Committees and peer-reviewed literature such as the award-winning The Oxford Companion to Cheese, the Oldways Cheese Coalition has established a set of attributes or desirable qualities that help define traditional cheeses. These attributes focus on:

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Photo by Dave Krugman
  1. The milk
  2. Production practices
  3. Culture and history

Traditional cheeses are made by men and women following time-tested techniques, such as using raw milk or allowing for the development of native bacterial cultures and fungi, making cheese in copper vats, or aging on wood boards and even in underground caves. These practices are worth preserving as important parts of our global gastronomic heritage, and as a way to support rural communities around the world.

Traditional cheeses are also celebrated for the attentive animal husbandry involved, the time-honored cheese-making methods, and perhaps most importantly, the resulting tastes. Further, traditional cheeses generally do not contain hydrogenated oils, food colorings, emulsifiers, and other unnecessary additives found in many highly-processed cheese products. Traditional cheeses’ flavors are instead developed by using high quality milk, natural fermentation, and artisanal techniques—delicious traditions worth preserving.

Not all traditional cheeses will feature all of these attributes, as cheesemaking practices vary from country to country and style by style. Some cheeses may satisfy more of these characteristics than others. These are not presented as a litmus test but rather as what we are calling Things to Look for in a Traditional Cheese.

Cheese lovers will find that some of these attributes are included in the labels of packaged cheeses or are used to describe products at cheese counters. Consumers are encouraged to ask for more information about each of these things to look for in a traditional cheese from producers, cheesemongers, and restaurant servers. Some of the descriptors below respond to specific regulations in the U.S. and therefore are included in ingredients lists.

 

Things to look for in a traditional cheese—MILK, production practices, And culture & history

Raw Milk Cheeses

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    Raw milk cheeses–such as the original Parmigiano-Reggiano made in Italy or Gruyère AOP made in Switzerland— are produced with milk that has not been pasteurized or heat-treated above the body temperature of the animal before the addition of rennet, an important enzyme used in the production of cheesemaking.

    Heat treatment, including pasteurization, removes most of the bacteria, yeasts, and other microorganisms that make a cheese unique. “Pasteurization is the application of mild heat to foods to facilitate the destruction of microorganism.” (The Oxford Companion to Cheese, pg. 544) While there are delicious heat-treated and pasteurized cheeses, raw milk cheeses are worth celebrating for their complexity of flavor, diversity of microflora, and history. The quality of the ingredients, the extreme care taken by producers, and the natural cheese aging process ensure that raw milk cheeses are a safe choice. In order for a raw milk cheese to be sold in the US, the cheese must be aged at least 60 days at a temperature no lower than 1.7˚C / 35˚F.

    In the US, cheeses made from heat-treated milk that does not meet FDA requirements for pasteurization may legally be labeled as “raw;” however, we encourage producers to identify these cheeses in ingredient statements more accurately as made from “unpasteurized” milk, rather than “raw.”

    In other parts of the world, consumers can identify heat-treated (though unpasteurized) cheeses as thermalized or thermized depending on local legislative and regulatory requirements. It is the norm around the world that the ingredient list on a package must note whether the milk utilized is raw or pasteurized.

    Organic

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      An Oldways photo


      According to US Department of Agriculture guidelines: “before it can be turned into cheese, organic milk must come from a certified organic cow. The organic cow cannot be given growth hormones or antibiotics, and its feed must be 100 percent organic. Organic feed comes from land not treated with any prohibited substances (e.g., synthetic fertilizers and most synthetic pesticides) for at least 3 years prior to harvest. The land must be managed in a way that maintains soil fertility and minimizes erosion, while distinct and defined boundaries make sure prohibited substances don’t come into contact with organic fields. The animal grazes on organic pastures for the entire grazing season, which must be at least 120 days a year, and receives at least 30 percent of its nutrition from pasture during the grazing season. Plus, throughout its life, the animal must be raised in living conditions that accommodate its natural behaviors and support its health and welfare.” (USDA, Organic 101: The Life cycle of Organic Food Production).

      There are four levels of USDA organic labeling. The first and strictest is “100% organic,” in which a product must be made entirely from certified organic ingredients and methods. The second level category “Organic” is available to any product containing at least 95 percent certified organic ingredients (excluding salt and water). Both categories are allowed to use the USDA organic seal and list the organic ingredients on the information panel. Foods—including cheese—in the third (“made with at least 70% organic ingredients”) and fourth (“contains organic ingredients”) organic categories are not eligible to use the USDA organic seal.

      It is important to note that some cheesemakers, and farmers, who use organic practices choose not to pursue federal organic certification, which costs them money and requires considerable time and paperwork. In addition, the words artisan, farmstead, or traditional do not necessarily mean that a cheese is organic and vice versa.

      While there is debate whether organic foods are nutritionally better than conventional, it has been shown that organic grass-fed milk is higher in protein and omega-3 fatty acid, a beneficial fat thought to provide a wide range of health benefits. (1)

      Source 1: Higher PUFA and n-3 PUFA, conjugated linoleic acid, α-tocopherol and iron, but lower iodine and selenium concentrations in organic milk: a systematic literature review and meta- and redundancy analyses (British Journal of Nutrition, Vol. 115, Issue 6, 2016) by Średnicka-Tober, Dominika, Marcin Barańsk, Chris J. Seal, and Roy Sanderson. Available online at: https://doi.org/10.1017/S0007114516000349

      Pasture Fed Animals

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        Photo by Dave Krugman


        An animal’s milk is influenced by the food the animal eats. Pasture-fed cows eat a natural diet of grasses and plants. As Ed Behr writes in The Oxford Companion to Cheese, “compared with feeding grain, milk from animals on pasture has a higher proportion of polyunsaturated fat, which makes the cheese softer and also healthier for the consumer. In addition to the grasses and legumes found in temporary pastures, which are periodically plowed and replanted, permanent pastures contain many broad-leafed plants that contribute aroma to dairy products. Pasture can be an essential component of the taste of terroir of a cheese” (pg. 549).

        Further, researchers have found that pasture grazing leads to higher levels of CLA (conjugated linoleic acid) than in milk from cows fed processed grains. This is important because, as found in a study by Dr. Hannia Campos at the Harvard School of Public Health, along with colleagues Drs. Smit and Baylin (2), higher levels of CLA have been shown to reduce the risk of a heart attack in humans. Studies in animals have suggested that CLAs can protect the heart and help in weight loss.

        Some producers label their products grass-fed or pasture-fed, however different standards exists due to the natural cycles of grass production and availability. Consumers are advised to inquire about claims or look for third-party certifications.

        Source 2: Conjugated linoleic acid in adipose tissue and risk of myocardial infarction (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Vol. 92, Issue 1, 2010) by Smit, Liesbeth A., Ana Baylin, and Hannia Campos. Available online: https://doi.org/10.3945/ajcn.2010.29524

        Production in Copper Vats

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        Photo by Dave Krugman


          Copper vats are used in the production of some of the world’s most famous cheeses including Comté PDO, Gruyère AOP, Parmigiano Reggiano PDO, Emmentaler AOP, and a number of others. To date, only a limited amount of scientific research has explored the relationship between copper vats and cheesemaking, but what exists overwhelmingly points to its beneficial impact on these traditional cheeses.

          As noted in The Oxford Companion to Cheese, “copper vats are valued in the production of certain styles of hard cheeses.” (pg. 190) Copper plays a significant role in regulating microbiological and biochemical activities of traditional cheese (3). Both consistency and flavor improved when copper vats were used in a controlled experiment opposite of stainless steel. This holds for Emmentaler AOP cheese as well as Parmigiano Reggiano PDO (4). Moreover, the production of Emmentaler cheese in copper vats has a positive effect on cheese ripening (5). Copper also has a marked effect on acidification by retarding the growth of propionibacterium (the bacteria that makes the characteristic holes in Swiss cheese), allowing the cheese to mature more slowly. Slow maturation is not ideal if the goal is to produce cheese quickly and efficiently, but prolonged fermentation has been shown to contribute to the consistency and organoleptic properties of the finished product. It is thus linked to the production of cheese produced at an artisan rather than industrial scale. Traditional cheese made in copper vats also has higher levels of copper and zinc that may be a valuable source of dietary minerals (6).

          Regulations in the US and Canada generally do not allow the use of copper vats, demanding vats made of stainless steel for cheese production, although there are some producers whose use of copper has been “grandfathered in,” while a few others have been granted special permissions.

          Geographical Indication guidelines for many European-made PDO cheeses specify whether the cheese must be made in copper vats to maintain its authenticity. Therefore, consumers looking for European-made cheese in traditional ways may look for PDO or AOP labels to ensure they are choosing those original varieties. Consumers looking for US-made cheeses made in copper vats may find out by checking online or asking their local cheesemonger.

          Source 3: The role of copper in the manufacture of Finnish Emmental cheese (Journal of Dairy Science, Vol. 94, Num. 10, 2011) by Mato Rodriguez, L., et al. Available online at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/?term=the+role+of+copper+in+the+ manufacture+of+finnish

          Source 4: L’utilizzo di caldaie di rame o di acciaio: effetti sulla tecnologia e sulle caratteristiche qualitative del Parmigiano-Reggiano (Scienze e Tecnica Lattiero-Casearia, Vol. 60, Num 2, 2009) by Pecorari, M., et al.
          Available online at: http://www.cabdirect.org/abstracts/20093229198.html;jsessionid=D7403A D4EB5C5932AAD563D349622876;jsessionid=66A9ABE59B28D1E7DDD127 5115D0BF1D

          Source 5: Technological aspects of copper in milk products and health implications of copper | Technica-scientific information (ALP Science, Num. 493, 2006) by Sieber, R., et al.
          Available online at: http://media.wix.com/ugd/76ddc6_d3c8c1b647244f94a5f4728fd325331b. pdf

          Source 6: Trace metals in raw cows’ milk and assessment of transfer to Comté cheese (Food Chemistry, Vol. 129, Issue 1, 2011) by Maas, S., et al.
          Available online at: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0308814610011076

          Aging on Wood Boards

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            An Oldways photo


            Aging cheese on wooden boards (commonly oak, spruce, and pine) is a vital part of the cheesemaking process in many cheesemaking regions and has been in some cases for more than a thousand years.

            The physical material in wood boards positively contributes to cheese maturation and flavor development. For instance, wood has a unique ability to create an ideal aging environment by regulating atmospheric humidity and temperature fluctuation. The porosity of wood allows cheeses to “breathe” as they age and thus contributes to the formation of natural and bacterial rinds (7). Alternatively, because plastic boards do not “breathe,” cheese aged on plastic may end up aging in an insanitary pool of expelled liquid. Woods boards allow humidity and moisture to be controlled during aging.

            A scientific study has confirmed that the microbial biofilms that form on wood boards actually have an anti-pathogenic effect. (8) The colonization of beneficial bacteria on wooden boards encourage a safe and sanitary final product.

            Cheese consumers may not know if a particular cheese has been aged on wooden boards just by looking at it already pre-cut and wrapped. However, there is a good chance cheeses with a rustic natural rind were aged on wooden boards. Be sure to ask at the cheese counter.

            Source 7: Use of wood by European Cheesemakers is authorized by the EU (Profession Fromager, Num 20, 2006) by Florence Boulenger.
            Available online at: http://media.wix.com/ugd/76ddc6_51fd169ce64e4b668b3302d32bd977f3.pdf

            Source 8: Inhibition of Listeria monocytogenes by resident biofilms present on wooden shelves used for cheese ripening (Food Control, Vol. 22, 2011) by Mariani, C., et al. Available online at: http://media.wix.com/ugd/76ddc6_b1ad0e72953042cd8d09f591d9ba8f5b.pdf

            Farmstead

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            An Oldways photo


              Farmstead production of any product means that the ingredients are grown or produced on the land or farm of the producer. For cheese, it means the cheese is made on a dairy farm from the milk of that farm’s animals. “Farmhouse” is a similar term used in Great Britain and Australia. The term fermier is used in France to indicate a cheese that has been made on a farm only with the milk from that one farm.

              As noted by Heather Paxson in The Oxford Companion to Cheese, a purported benefit of farmstead production is that when cheesemakers own and care for the animals that provide the milk, they enjoy “a higher degree of oversight over milk quality than is otherwise possible.” As “a commercial designation, ‘farmstead’ has successfully come to connote a wide range of desired qualities, including the complex flavors associated with artisanal production, the environmental and ethical virtues of craft farming and humane husbandry, and the social benefits of supporting small family-run farms” (p. 265)  However, farmstead is not a legally regulated designation in the U.S., nor does it guarantee that the cheese is organic or produced using traditional cheese-making practices.

              Native Cultures

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                Milk is a diverse microbial ecosystem. Micro-organisms present in milk used to make cheese include fungi and beneficial bacteria. They often coming from the animal, the farm soil, the dairy parlor, and even from the cheesemaking vats. Some artisan producers use the existing microbial communities in milk and the dairy environment to maintain the link between soil and cheese. The presence of acidifying lactic acid bacteria, otherwise known as starter cultures, is higher in raw milk.

                Cheesemakers shepherd these micro-organisms in milk to create complex flavor profiles and unique textures. There are various ways to achieve this, including back slopping, aging on wood boards, or in underground caves.

                For example, in The Oxford Companion to Cheese, “back slopping is defined as a practice where a new batch of food to be fermented is inoculated by using a sample from a previous batch of fermented food. It is applied in the manufacture of some traditional cheeses, where whey from the previous batch is used to prepare natural whey cultures. Another example is the natural inoculation that results from the use of wooden vats for the manufacture of some traditional protected designation of origin cheeses, for example, in the manufacture of Ragusano cheese in Sicily and Salers cheese in France.” (pg. 678)

                Some producers use lyophilized (frozen) cultures to jump start the acidification of milk. This could be because their milk is low in native lactic cultures due to pasteurization or because they are looking to enhance a specific flavor profile. We do not oppose the use of added cultures, but cheeses made with native cultures are worth celebrating for their complexity of flavor, diversity, and connection to the place of origin.

                Cheese-lovers can find many cheeses made with native cultures. Some producers may include this on their ingredient lists. Consumers looking for cheeses made with native cultures may find out by checking online or asking their local cheesemonger.

                Name Protection

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                  Similar to the appellation system used for wines, Geographic Indications (GI) promote and protect foods made in a particular place, using specific production methods. This name protection was implemented in Europe in 1992. The United States does not have a similar framework of protection.

                  The law is to protect the reputation of regional foods, to promote rural and agricultural activity, to help producers obtain a premium price for their authentic products, and to eliminate the unfair competition and misleading of consumers by inauthentic products, which may be of inferior quality or of a different flavor.

                  The law sets up possible restrictions on the use of cheese names by New World producers. As noted in The Oxford Companion to Cheese, “the political nature of cheese naming illuminates the complex relationship between European and New World cheesemakers competing over the status of what names qualify as protected or generic.” (pg. 507)

                  Europe has two kinds of GIs: protected geographic indication (PGI), indicating only a geographic origin, and the stricter protection designation of origin (PDO), which adds specific processing requirements. In addition, there is a third protected type of cheese—traditional specialty guaranteed (TSG). This last designation does not have a geographic component, but protection is based on method of production. Products registered under all of these designations may be marked with a special logo—something consumers can look for!

                  Because Switzerland is not a European Union member, similar designations exist for their traditional cheeses under Swiss law. The appellation d’origine protégée (AOP, protected designation of origin) certifies that “everything, from the raw material to the processing and the final product, comes from one clearly defined region of origin.” (Swiss PDO-PGI Association, Definition AOP-IGP) Cheese-lovers around the world can identify those cheeses by the use of the letters AOP after the name of the cheese on labels and consumer information.

                  Often times, the topic of name protected products is presented as a fight between European vs US producers. However, because geographical indications aim to protect traditional cheesemaking practices and give certainty to consumers, we believe respecting PDO and AOP products has the potential to support traditional producers. We know consumers understand the difference between products and places of origin and encourage all producers to take pride in their cheeses. Using European names for American-made products takes away from the originality and pride that distinguishes US-based cheesemakers. We also call on European cheese producers to safeguard traditional cheese making practices, codifying the use of raw milk on Geographic Indications guidelines.

                  Beyond the Label

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                    Protected names, like product and ingredient labeling, are informative. But they can never tell the whole story. Don’t hesitate to ask the person selling you a cheese to tell you about it! Is it a European classic — or instead, a New World take on an older tradition? What can you learn about the people behind the product — about the farm or creamery behind a particular wheel of cheese, or about generations of farmers and families whose culinary habits have kept a recipe and style of cheese alive, even for centuries, to bring you a taste of another time and place.

                    We invite you to taste traditional cheeses at every opportunity. Which textures and flavors appeal to you? Gooey and pungent? Dry and sharp? Buttery and mild? At the end of the day, traditional cheese, like any food, is only as good as it is to eat.