If you thought cheese had to be the product of a sterile environment and carefully selected laboratory-grown starters, Canadian dairy farmer and wild-cheese expert, David Asher, will happily try to change your mind.
“Today there are a lot of packaged cultures in cheesemaking, like the packaged yeast starters used in bread baking,” says the founder of the travelling Black Sheep School of Cheesemaking. “But traditionally, people kept the cultures of their cheese, like a sourdough bread starter. I teach people how to care for their cheese culture, and to grow their own fungi, white rinds and blue veins, working with indigenous micro organisms in raw milk, rather than pasteurising milk and then adding starters back in.”
He’s in town to teach courses on the art of natural cheesemaking with Milkwood Permaculture in Sydney, but the trip to Australia came about after several invitations arrived in quick succession – from places including Tasmania’s The Agrarian Kitchen and Melbourne’s The Fermentary – after he published his book The Art of Natural Cheesemaking last year.
“There’s a strong local food movement [in Australia] and interest in traditional methods of food production and biodynamics, so it’s fertile ground for these ideas,” says Asher. Despite being based on traditional methods, he says natural cheesemaking is a new idea for most people – there was very little information available when he started out a decade ago. According to Asher, when we pasteurise milk and then add individual bacteria strains back in, we don’t provide the right ecology. “That’s when problems can happen, so then you do need the sterile environment,” he says. In using good-quality raw milk, the right bacteria can flourish and the risks are lower.
“In Europe they eat fresh raw cheese and there’s no health epidemic, and micro-biological evidence is pointing to the beneficial organisms that actually make these cheeses safer, as long as the milk is from a good, healthy source,” says Asher.
Given the strong stance that Australia has taken on raw milk – despite recent changes in the regulations – for now, Asher’s methods are for private consumption only. “I’d recommend starting with fresh cheeses,” he says, suggesting that labna is a great beginners cheese for the Australian climate. So too is yoghurt and soft cream cheese. “They’ve been doing it in warm climates for centuries and it’s very popular.”
David Asher will teach courses on natural cheesemaking for Milkwood Permaculture March 6–7 in Sydney and March 11–12 in Gerringong (sold out). He’ll also give a free talk and demonstration at the Carriageworks Farmers’ Market at 10am and 12pm on Saturday March 5.