Sunday, May 17, 2009

Mighty, Mite-y Cheddar

Did you have bad dreams about cheese mites after my last post?

If you didn't, you might after looking at this photo!

I'm surprised that I myself haven't had nightmares about cheese mites, especially after seeing them up close and too personal on the cloth rind of a large wheel of Keen's Cheddar. While visiting Moorhayes Farm in Somerset for a day in late April, I followed around George Keen in his enormous cheese store (that's where cheese is matured, not sold--that's a shop), while he ironed maturing Cheddars to get samples for a food lab. If I was lucky, he gave me some of his cheese, considered one of the best Cheddars in the world, to taste. What I wasn't expecting was a close encounter with cheese mites. It was clear that they were around. You could see brownish clumps of them on the exterior of the cheeses and also their dander, which looked like small piles of grayish dust, on the wooden shelves supporting the heavy wheels of cheese. In between ironing cheeses and putting the cheese plugs into sterile clear plastic bags, George spoke about how hard it is to get rid of cheese mites. So that I would know exactly what he and his cheeses were up against, George got a magnifying glass and put it up close to a cluster of them right on the moldy cloth rind. "Here, take a look." George held the magnifying glass as I moved in. I could see them clearly, like the picture above (taken from Wikipedia), but unlike the picture above, they were moving around, probably feasting on the molds. Frankly, it was gross seeing them squirm around. But I took another look. How could I not? It's like having to smell milk that's gone off after someone has told you it has.

Cheese mites aren't particular to Keen's cheese store. They're pretty much anywhere there are cheeses, especially hard ones, and molds. Wherever they are, they are a nuisance to cheesemakers and cheesemongers alike. In a cheese shop they don't look very good, making it seems as though the cheesemongers hadn't dusted in a while. Worse than that, cheese mites aggravate allergies, making skin and eyes itchy and even making it hard to breathe. Cheese-turning day, when the mites become airborne, isn't a popular day to work in a shop. In a cheese store, they can cause greater headaches, both physically and mentally. As mentioned in my earlier post, cheese mites can ruin an otherwise delicious cheese by making small portions of it turn blue (which is fine to eat--even good to eat--but supermarkets don't want blue Cheddar) or brown (which is not fine to eat, not one bit). Cheesemakers have to devote a lot of energy to getting rid of them.

So, how does one get rid of them? Until recently, cheesemakers successfully used a gas to thwart the attack of cheese mites on their cheeses, but it was banned by the E.U. for environmental reasons. Some tried using Diatomaceous earth since the ban, but it isn't totally effective at controlling the mites and it could, as I mentioned in the earlier posting, make the protective cloths come off the rinds, leaving the cheeses exposed to other problems. The only course of action for now is to vacuum the cheeses regularly to suck up the cheese mites and their dander and to petition the E.U. to let cheesemakers use that gas in their stores.

Why all this information about unsavory mites? I don't want to give you bad dreams or the creepy-crawlies. And I certainly don't want you to stop eating traditional cheeses. Keep in mind that by the time you buy your beautiful wedge of handmade Cheddar, wrapped up neatly in white cheese paper, the mighty threat of mites is over.

What I want you to know about is the huge amount of effort that goes into getting you a complex tasting Cheddar. Cheesemakers have to fight many battles before you, the cheese eater, win. They have to wage war against microscopic bugs, do battle with people trying to ban unpasteurized cheeses, and struggle against supermarkets who want their nonconformist cheeses to conform. If they give up the fight, the only cheeses you will be buying are ones that have been aged in plastic or wax, ones that Johnno at Keen's inimitably calls "crappy, tasteless stuff that people call cheese."

You don't want that do you? If you don't, then you will have to put up with some cheese mites, both on your cheese and in your dreams.

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