Monday 6th November
Commodifying the Authentic: the story of cheese in Britain
There was much excitement ahead of cheese day, and it certainly didn’t disappoint. We began by looking into tradition and authenticity, two more terms to add to the list of words that we’ve found we can’t use unless miming inverted commas with our fingers. What do they really mean in relation to food?
To try to find an answer (although I think we’ve all realised that the MSc Gastronomy doesn’t lead to many answers, only more questions), we dived into the world of cheese. Humans have been making cheese for around 6000 years, initially as a means of preserving milk. There are now around 1500 known cheeses in the world, and amazingly 700 of those are made in the UK. Before the 1800s, towns in Britain produced their own cheeses for the locals, however with the arrival of transport, areas with a better climate for making cheeses took over, and their products were sold across the country. In the mid-1800s, the first cheesemonger opened. Soon after this, cheaper cheeses were imported from overseas. In France, this threat of being undercut by foreign cheesemakers led to the introduction of the AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) for cheeses, initially for Roquefort in 1925, to protect their geographical origin (see my previous post for more information). In the UK, however, industrial production using the cheddaring method was introduced to create a consistent product with standardised prices. This generated no incentive to make creative artisan cheeses.
Recently, there has been a revival in UK cheesemaking, started in part by the opening of Neal’s Yard Dairy in the early 1980s. There are now several cheeses with protected designation of origin (PDO) status, which is seen to be a marker of authenticity and the use of traditional methods. However, in the case of West Country Farmhouse Cheddar, methods vary from one producer to the next, with some technologically-advanced techniques being used. Maybe these new techniques will, in the future, be seen as traditional, the same way as current traditional methods were once seen as highly innovative.
Another fabulous gastro-lunch, featuring reindeer, elk, partridge, and plenty of cheese:
In the afternoon, we went on an emotional three-hour, cheese-filled journey with Barry Graham of Loch Arthur Creamery and Farm. The organisation is a Camphill community, supporting, and providing work for, people with learning difficulties. Barry spoke about the work of artisan food producers being a part of what their life is about, and said that the people that go to work for them have a deep connection to the organisation.
When Barry and his wife moved to Loch Arthur in 1985, he did not know of any local cheesemakers, despite Dumfries and Galloway having the perfect damp climate for making cheese. After putting an ad in the paper, Barry found someone close-by to pass on their traditional knowledge of cheddaring. Although he could have called his finished cheese a cheddar, he wanted to “respect the regionality of the product”, the process for which originated in Cheddar in Somerset, so he named it Loch Arthur Farmhouse Cheese.
According to Barry, there are four ingredients in cheese-making: milk, starter culture, rennet, and of course the cheesemaker. He stressed how amazing it is that what we put into milk to make it into cheese, is culture. Rennet is an enzyme in the lining of the stomach that curdles the casein proteins in milk. At Loch Arthur, they use vegetarian rennet, however the original animal product is thought to have been discovered when nomadic people in Mongolia put milk into the stomach of a recently slaughtered calf to transport it, and found that when they tried to pour it out, it had coagulated. The variations of these four ingredients can produce a huge number of cheeses. Add to that varying timing, temperature and acidity, and you can reach the current figure of 1500 known cheeses in the world.
It was lovely to hear Barry speak about the way of life at Loch Arthur, where they have extended the pitching process (after stirring the curds and whey, the curd is left to settle at the bottom of the vat before draining off they whey) from the usual fifteen minutes to one hour, so that staff can have a communal lunch break.
Unfortunately, there are huge health scares surrounding raw milk cheeses, which has led to the pasteurisation of milk for some cheeses at Loch Arthur. The war on artisan cheesemakers by the government can be hugely detrimental to small-scale businesses. Recently, the case of Errington Cheese, accused by Health Protection Scotland of causing an outbreak of E. coli, leading to the death of a three-year-old girl, was dropped after no evidence was found that their products were to blame. There are around 90 deaths in the UK per year from campylobacter poisoning in poultry, but no deaths proven to have been caused by the consumption of cheese. However, it is the artisan cheesemakers that are suffering. Barry explained that in France, there are roughly 20,000 small-scale cheesemakers, compared to just 400 here, meaning that in France there is more respect by the authorities for those businesses. It seems that if the Scottish Government are proposing to make Scotland a ‘Good Food Nation’ (see previous post on the topic), it might need to work harder on its support of small-scale, artisan businesses. As for consumers, it is an even better excuse, if ever we needed one, to just carry on buying wonderful artisan cheeses.
Tuesday 7th November
Today involved a rather unconventional nutrition lecture. Instead of looking into nutrients, or what foods we should be eating and why, Brian Power, lecturer in Nutrition and Dietetics at the University of Hertfordshire, took us through the history of nutrition, the creation of dietary guidelines, common health beliefs, and how to spot bogus claims.
The first nutritional experiment took place in 1747 when James Lind fed limes to sailors to try to reverse the symptoms of scurvy. Initially, nutrition was studied through observations of deficiency, and in 1913, vitamin A was discovered. Recommended Daily Amounts (RDAs) were introduced in the UK in 1950 and have been updated several times since then. Now, the nutrition industry has become big business, and has gone far beyond simply studying what we need in order to survive.
Brian explained that when issuing dietary advice, the totality of evidence is looked at, so that a more generalised guide is given. Personalised nutrition has been tested, to give advice tailored to an individual, however it did not have an effect on eating habits, meaning it is unlikely to be rolled out any time soon. Brian said that at the moment, the same amount of information about the individual can be gained from asking about their family history in terms of health. He also pointed out that the reason people are getting ill is because they are not following dietary guidelines.
Food labelling has become a hot topic of late, and it seems that the debate about how best to get across the nutritional value of a product will continue. For many, health literacy can be a problem, so working out the mathematics from the given amounts, whether per 100g or per serving, can lead to uncertainty. The now-compulsory back-of-pack labels are a huge extra cost for small businesses, an issue which Barry Graham brought up in yesterday’s lecture. In addition to these matters, people eat food, not nutrients, and it is important for people to know the benefits of the entire product, not just whether it contains a large amount of fat or added vitamin C.
It appears that there can often be industry bias in nutritional studies based on where the sponsorship is coming from. Brian explained that there is not often enough transparency and that there should be an independent arbiter for the evidence gathered. However, when industry and health professionals work together, there can be positive results. We were given the example of the Marks & Spencer’s Fuller Longer range as a collaboration that has worked for everyone’s benefit.
Nutritional claims can be hugely exaggerated in newspaper headlines. Presenting data in a slightly different way can mean that we interpret it totally differently. This ‘Spinning the Risk’ animation shows the ways in which health claims can be misleading. Once these claims become ‘common knowledge’, it can be hard to discover the truth. Celebrities pick out certain headlines or food and diet trends that, when plastered all over social media, can spiral out of control and have a hugely detrimental effect on their followers, who may be following unsound advice. The ‘clean eating’ movement is a perfect example of this.
Today left me perhaps even more wary of nutritional claims than ever before. Without seeing original research papers, it is pretty difficult to work out what to believe. Food education certainly needs to be improved, as does transparency within the nutrition industry. Until then, Michael Pollan’s classic quote sums it up beautifully: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”