Terroir and cheese is heard about a lot less than terroir in wine, this is for sure. I for one am a fan of a nice glass of wine and in fact, this was where Cheezus first began; discussing wine one afternoon, while nibbling on cheese and sipping on some fermented grapes.
Terroir is the French word used to describe the environmental factors that affect a crop, including the ground and weather conditions. All of which provide contextual characteristics to that crop.
Studies have been done to look at the different affect on terroir for products such as wine, coffee, chocolate, hops, tea and even cannabis. Yet, what about cheese?
How does terroir affect cheese?
Or, does it? I suppose that’s the first question to get out there.
Yes, is the simple answer to that, but how is a more complicated answer.
Cheese is produced from milk. (Top marks for that one, thank you!) Specifically animals such as cows, sheep, goats and sure, Donkey’s if you have tried the Serbian Donkey’s cheese!
The ground throughout winter produces a vastly fibrous grass and hay with an indigestible cellulose, that we as humans cannot capitalise on, due to our digestive systems. However, the above animals, which are known as Ruminants, are capable of extracting the nutrients by their production of enzymes called cellulase, which breaks down the cellulose. They use a “stomach” called the Rumen, which is a sort of fermentation vat, where the cellulase breaks down the cellulose, which releases the sugars and the nutrients within the plant cells.
These great animals are capable of producing nutrient rich milk out of seemingly poor quality (to us) grass and hay.
Different breeds of ruminants are suited to different climates and landscapes. You have a completely different terroir in the Alps than you get in regions of the UK. The animals in those regions produce different chemically structured milk, depending on the diet of that animal, in that region.
This is how terroir and cheese come together.
At the same time, it’s not the only thing that will impact the milk produced by that animal. We know that the breed of animal also affects significantly the type of milk that will be produced. Abondance cows will produce vastly different milk to Jersey cows, even if they were placed in the same environments.
You can also add to the list of environmental factors, the conditions in which the ruminants live and graze. The stress an animal is under vastly alters the produce of that animal. Whether the meat or the milk, not only will an animal produce more milk when not stressed, but of significantly better quality as well.
Researchers at Virginia Tech found that too much iron in a cow’s water can alter the taste of the milk due to the degradation of proteins as well as the oxidation of the fats.
Terroir is so much more than just the ground.
The production of cheese, including pasteurization is said to have a great impact on killing bacteria that is crucial to providing flavour. Essentially, we’re using the these ruminants to take the microbes from their local landscape and converting it into our produce. The pasteurization can kill off key parts that make what’s unique about that terroir, unique.
I found this amazing saying online about cheese:
Cheese is climate, biology, history, culture and love concentrated.
Which I love. But I’d also add Chemistry, too!
This is what I find most fascinating with cheese, cheese production and particularly the artisan producers of cheese. It’s not one thing that makes that cheese what it is. It’s not simply one trick that will make an award winning, smile creating cheese. It’s a combination of so many elements that come together to make each piece what it is.
Terroir in cheese is not about some fancy marketing gimmick, it’s about understanding the nuances of an the environment, climate, conditions and breed – Combined with the production methods that all combine to create something quite unique and special.
I really hope you enjoyed this piece, I really enjoyed writing it. It truly brings together so many things that mean a lot to me and that I appreciate in this industry.
Would love your comments!