Gereon Janzing, geobotánico y etnobotánico
Gereon Janzing, geobotánico y etnobotánico

Cheese cultures, the History of their Use

(This article was published in German in the Swiss magazine Zalp, a magazine of cheesemakers and herdspeople, in its 2001 issue.)

The cheese factories on the mountains as well as those in the valleys nowadays cannot be imagined without cheese cultures. When making cheese without cultures, the risk of wrong fermentations is too high as that anyone could afford it. An ethnobotanical overview

Cheese cultures consist of different bacteria. it was in 1680 that for the first time a human being observed bacteria: the lens manufacturer Antoni van Leeuwenhoek. He mistook them for animals. After that for a long time the belief survived that they are plants. That's why till nowadays they are treated within botany (and so also in ethnobotany). Today it is accepted in biology that they form a kingdom of organisms of their own (or even two separate, unrelated kingdoms) whereas plants, animals (including humans, of course) and fungi belong to anither kingdom, called by the technical term eukaryotes.

Besides bacteria in making cheese there are also used moulds, for example in Brie (Penicillium candidum), Camembert (Penicillium camemberti) and Roquefort (Penicillium roqueforti). Mould belong to the fungi and so to the mentioned eukaryotes. The classification as mould does not tell much about its position in the biological system, neither about its quemism but it refers to the form of growing: fungi the mycels of which grow on the surface. So we cannot conclude from the fact that there are moulds harmful for the health that this holds true for just any mould. We won't have a closer look at mould cultures here because for the Swiss Alpkäse, the cheese from the summer farms - except in Tessin - they are meaningless.

So let's return to the bacteria: In 1857 Louis Pasteur recognized that bacteria hold responsible for the lactic fermentation. In 1877 for the first time bacteria were bred in pure culture by Joseph Lister in England. By the end of the 1890s von Freudenreich discovered the importance of lactic bacteria for the cheese maturing. Therefore he recommended the use of rennet powder enriched with lactic bacteria.

All in all the second half of the 19th century brought many innovations in the dairy economy, from the milking-machine to the milk centrifuge. On the Alpine summer farms, of course, those inventions were not important from the beginning, neither was it the use of bacterial cultures.

In 1914 the first cheese in which the systematic use of bacterial cultures was introduced, was the Emmentaler. The bacteria which in this cheese cause the holes because of propionic fermentation are called Propioniobacterium freudenreichii in honor of the mentioned von Freudenreich. In this case, imlñike most others, it is not lactic bacteria but propionic bacteria. Those are not wanted in most other cheeses: Propionic fermentation is a dreaded misfermentation.

For the first time in 1928 the cheese cultures reached the Alpine summer dairies and only slowly did they gain ground there. By then they were whey cultures. That means that a small part of the whey of one cheese is kept for the next cheese. The bacteria that are present once and remain oput of control, are used again and again. That leads to a taste typical of every single dairy. However, whey culture requires quite a bit of experience in making cheese. Today it is usual that at the beginning of the Alpine dairy summer a bought culture is used as a mother culture.

In the late 70s and in the 80s of the last century it was begun to use raw mixed cultures, bred in laboratories from whey cultures. Then, mixed cultures are mixed in laboratories of single bacterial strains. In the mixed cultures, for instance, there are used the bacteria Streptococcus spec. (temperature optimum: 25–30 °C) and Lactobacillus helveticus (optimum: 40–45 °C). The former gender also makes yoghurt, along with a relative of the latter species, Lactobacillus bulgaricus. So it does not come as a surprise that also yoghurt is used as a culture.

The newest culture is the one called Alp-Dip, a freeze-dried culture which is unlike the other cultures in that the pre-breeding is omitted. The production process becomes easier, the bacteria become more standardized, the taste becomes another step more uniform.

On Alpine summer farms with a personnel changing frequently, like they are common in the Canton of Graubünden, the mixed cultures displaced the whey cultures widely whereas these latters remain predominant in family dairies, for example in the Bernese Oberland. Depending on whom one asks, one gets very different statements which culture is better. Some people are convinced of mixed cultures and indicate the big risk of whey cultures that misfermentation keep reproducing themselves again and again. Others have made good experiences with a whey culture and are convinced that this is the best. Anyway, it is the most individual one for every dairy. The question ist: more safety or a more individual taste. A question that surely everyone has to answer for themselves, for, as Oscar Wilde said: "The ordinary gives the world its stability, the extraordinary its worth."

Literature and Sources:

Fritsche, Wolfgang 1990: Mikrobiologie.

Regi, Duolf 1986: Die Welt der kleinsten Lebewesen. Bakterien, Hefen, Schimmelpilze. Skript des Plantahofs, Landquart.

Renner, Edmund 1988: Lexikon der Milch. München.

Schuler, Kaspar 1998: Leben im Milchmeer. In: Hösli, Giorgio & Kaspar Schuler (Hrsg.): Handbuch Alp. S. 155-162.

Sulzer, Barbara & Hösli, Giorgio 1998: Sirtenkultur. In: Hösli, Giorgio & Kaspar Schuler (Hrsg.): Handbuch Alp. S. 162-167.

Zickrick, Karl, Klaus Wegner, Manfred Schreiter, Georg Schiefer, Christian Saupe, Hans-Dietrich Münch 1986: Mikrobiologie tierischer Lebensmittel. Eine Einführung. Thun u. Frankfurt/Main.