Thursday, September 26, 2013

Cheese, Place and Community

Now that the stalls are all gone, and Citta de Bra is back to it's lovely state of normal after 250,000 visitors came to experience the Eighth biannual Slow Food Festival of Cheese, my thoughts have been, well, fermenting.

My initial reason for coming was to see how the ESSEDRA project was going, particularly for Macedonia and Bulgaria since I have family and friends in both of those Balkan nations. ESSEDRA stands for Environmentally Sustainable Socio-Economic Development of Rural Areas. In my estimation this project is the most tangible development in the realm of sustainable economics I have ever witnessed. A unique partnership between Slow Food International, the United Nations Farm and Agriculture Organization and the European Union has come together to help developing nations in the Balkans maintain their unique cultural and culinary heritage, as well as protect the local economies in those areas as they strive to meet the demands of globalization and modernization.

Panelists for the ESSEDRA presentation at Cheese 2013 in Bra, Italy

As I listened to lectures, presentations and the conversations of my fellow Macedonian travel companions, a consistent theme was presented: hygienic safety. I learned much about milk, fermentation and cheese throughout my experience, but the concept of safety and the integrity of the peoples in the Balkans literally kept me up at night.

As a health care provider with 25 years of experience, health and hygiene have been drilled into me through my education, continuing education and licensing requirements. What I have also witnessed is an increase in auto immune diseases, bacterial resistance and food allergies that send my patients scrambling to find something they can actually eat that does not make them sick. Helping my patients figure out what to eat is why I am so passionately informed on food. And yet, in all the handouts and classes I produce to help people who can not tolerate a myriad of food items have some sort of pleasure in eating, I still keep wondering. I keep coming back to this concept of ecology, the inter relatedness of all creation. How could wheat and dairy be so deadly for a large portion of the population? How could tomatoes send others reeling in pain, and simple carbohydrates put others into a coma if not managed properly? Was it always like this? Did nature make food poison for some, and if so, why?

When I was in Naturopathic School, one of my deepest aha moments, which actually initiated a life long sense of gratitude towards creation, was the realization that nature provided all we needed to heal. Since my first semester in graduate school, when I look out of the window or walk in a forest or meadow, I see food and medicine. In school, we were taught about elements in plants that had very little to do with the life cycle of the plant, but had very much to do with initiating healing in humans. We also learned about all the nutrients provided by nature to sustain our lives and prevent disease. These gifts from nature were beyond evolutionary biology, because actually in many ways it is against the interest of plants to promote the human species, and yet they do so. I learned through subsequent studies how indigenous populations learned a song for each plant, that would be sung by the healer and the patient during it's application to heal an ailment. What also struck me was that plants in a certain geographical area or from a certain season were perfect for the disease states of that time and place. How did this happen, and why? For me personally, it was a grand and elegant gesture that we humans were planned and generously provided for through the natural world. While I am a person of deep spiritual and religious conviction, what has ever delighted me since is how science keeps confirming my beliefs. I had no idea that Cheese would be the next step in confirmation of my beliefs of a generous and gracious world.

Obviously, Cheese involves fermentation. My modern ignorance thought that such processes came out of a packet of pre-mixed inoculating agents. These agents in turn would curdle the milk and make the delicious creamy solid, (that I just can not cut out of my diet at any other time than Lent.) But apparently this process of inoculation has not always been so, the packets have been part of cheese making only in modern industrial times. Since evidence that cheese making has been part of human culinary ways for nearly 10,000 years, predating beer actually, the standardization of inoculating cheese is a very recent development.

The Fermentation of Milk under a Microscope

How did humans make cheese before those sceptic plastic packs came on the market in health food stores? What I learned through my Cheese experience in Bra, the agent of transformation that has resulted in over 2000 cheeses world wide is actually the place where they are made. It seems that the Terroir of Cheese is actually what the name implies, the Earth or Place where it is made and the tiny microbes associated with the soil and air of a region. Tom Baars representing the Research Institute for Organic Agriculture in Germany illustrated during his presentation on milk,  showed that agents of fermentation actually alter the pH of the milk, making it inhospitable to unhealthy bacteria. He had the graphs, double blind study statistics and pictures to prove it.

The regulations for milk we are told are to keep us safe. Heaven forbid a child innocently drinking milk with their cookies would die of e coli or listeria. The only solution is to boil, pasteurise and standardize cultures for fermented dairy products. But what does this do actually? Baars went on with his magnificent graphs and statistics calling for a new language of Milk; a language of the Terroir of milk.

As a health care provider presented with children covered in eczema, the first step is to remove all milk from the diet. This usually clears the condition up in a week or so. Some desperate parents have turned to raw milk, finding that their children are healed and actually protected from recurrences of eczema. Baar also provided statistics to back up what I had witnessed in my practice. His research came to the conclusion that the consumption of local raw milk was the best preventative predictor for atopic and allergic diseases, meaning raw milk was the best way to prevent eczema, allergies and asthma. 

Lactobacillus Acidophilus a fermenting agent of Milk

But how is this so? What Baar and his colleagues involved in fermentation were discovering under their microscopes and research is that in addition to natural cultures, there are bio active contents in milk beyond protein, fats and carbohydrates. He calls them the "symphony of background" in milk. What was more astonishing to me, was comparing all of these background components between conventional, organic and biodynamic milks. The research suggests that when a milk producing animal is raised on grass in it's natural environment, not only are levels of nutrients higher in the milk, but these background element levels are higher. Another discovery with pasteurization; these elements are destroyed. There seems to be an intricate interaction between the elements in the air and soil that when they meet these background elements in local milk, that create the perfect opportunity for cheese. This can not be replicated en mass or in industrial settings.

Baar went on to site studies on Farm Children exposed to all the dirt and bacteria common to living with animals and working with soil, versus children who do not live this way. The studies showed that Farm children were sick less often and had healthier immune systems. He sited other research that showed a little dirt is actually good for humans, in some ways it helps to spark our immune systems to be stronger. What I was understanding from all of this, was that these microbes that are specific to place, that ferment the milk into yogurt and cheese, these microbes help humans interact in a healthy and balanced way with the outside world. When these microbes are absent, we become sick or over run with toxic bacteria. These agents allow for the transformation of food stuffs specific to place to be hospitable to human existence. Talk about elegant design, Cheese as an agent of co-existence between humans and the land, now that is what I call excellent planning!

I revisit my training as a Naturopath and Acupuncturist. We are taught lots of philosophy in these trainings. The key in Naturopathic School is the Hippocratic Oath, first do no harm, and then heal with nature. In Acupuncture School, we are taught about the five element correspondence in terms of diagnosing and treatment. The Earth Element is related to the stomach and digestion. It's purpose is the "transformation and transportation" of nutrition throughout the body. When I think of Terroir, particularly of Cheese, this all has a new meaning for me now. The Chinese were meticulous observers of correspondences in all things. Could it be that the arcane and artistic language of Traditional Chinese Medical philosophy, of the Earth Element and Nutrition was the simplistic way to comprehend what Baars was showing with his graphs? A deeper question is can we be nourished when food does not have the natural Terroir in it, but a prepackaged pasturized standard level of "stuff" we like to call food?

A boon to natural medical practitioners is the explosion in Auto Immune disease. Put simply, the person is literally allergic to themselves, they have anti bodies to their own tissue, and there is ample evidence that certain food stuffs stimulate this reaction. The other boon to our practices is the explosion in asthma and allergies. People are literally reacting to everything around them with inflammation, grass, pollen, dust, food, water, air, everything makes them react by either swelling up like a balloon or almost suffocating. These people, most often children, have to live in sterile environments eating about 5 different non-alleric foods to simply exist. What is going on? How can people be allergic to their own body tissues and organs? How can food stuffs that have been eaten for over 10,000 years send people to the emergency room? How can this be?

I go back to the entire safety argument. We must boil, sterilize and standardize in order to be safe. But are we safer actually? It seems that nature provided all that is necessary to  successfully interact with the outside world. It is called Terroir, place, region, (I would also say Earth) and all the microbes that transform juice into wine, flour into bread and milk into cheese. These elements have proven to increase and adapt human physiology to be in harmony and relationship with the Earth, mainly through digestion. Not only that, but these agents of place, give incredible pleasure and nourishment at the same time. We often think of medicine as painful and tasting bad, but when we understand the mechanisms that have been going on for 10,000 years, it really causes one to reconsider what is healing and what is actually safe.

What I am seeing now is an imbalance between the human and natural world, the delicate balance is being over run all in the interests of safety. When I watch parents who have been up all night in the emergency room with an asthmatic child gasping for breath because of contact with pasteurized milk, I wonder how safe they all feel? Nature has designed herself with very consistent processes, with the ultimate purpose of promoting life. We see this in fermentation of all kinds, how the simple act of fermentation kills toxic bacteria, enables humans to interact with the outside world. When these processes are overtaken for the sole purpose of convenience of a market driven industry, this is the true risk for humanity.

Swedish Raw Milk Cheese, Cheese Festival Marketplace, Bra Italy 

I enjoy my raw milk Gorgonzola with new gratitude, and am more dedicated to helping those who are working to preserve these ancient practices. Our lives and the lives of our children, our health and the economic health of our communities actually depend on the preservation of naturally fermented cheese. More on the people involved in the next post.

Cheese Monger offering Red Hawk from Cowgirl Creamery in Point Reyes 
California, a truly Californian Terroir Cheese. Don't you feel safe now?

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