Natural Cheese

December 07, 2021 4 min read

Natural Cheese

What do we mean by the term ‘natural cheese’?  Simply put this is a cheese made either without addition of a starter culture or a cheese made using a starter culture that the cheesemaker has made from their own milk.

Starter cultures are added at the beginning of the cheese make in order to acidify the milk, they consist of lactic acid bacteria who digest the milk sugar, lactose, creating lactic acid as a by product.  The lactic acid is one of the features preserving the nutritional content of the milk (fats & proteins) which is the purpose of making cheese.  The speed and amount of acidification will have a huge effect on the flavour development of the cheese and its texture.  Higher acidification brings on a more crumbly texture and obviously the lactic, zesty flavours where lower acidification tends to result in a more elastic paste and sweeter, nutty flavours. 

Starter cultures can be bought or made.  Usually the cultures are grown in a lab and the attraction of using these is they are proven and known to be both safe and effective.  Commercial starter cultures have been in production since 1893 when they were first produced by Christian Hansen, a chemist who had by then developed a name for himself in the production of rennet for cheesemaking.  They are essential for large scale producers buying from multiple farms and pasteurising their milk and in some countries such as the UK, the majority of small scale producers also use them for consistency and peace of mind because using natural cultures requires a degree of confidence and attention to detail.  The animals must be in perfect health and milking hygiene immaculate if bacteria that could spoil the cheese or worse, cause food poisoning, are not to get into the process.  Before starter cultures were available commercially, cheesemakers used to make their own or rely on the lactic acid bacteria that occur naturally in their milk.


A Salers cow milking with her calf

There are a couple of commonly used ways to make a starter culture.  One is to obtain milk from the best animal of the herd, known to produce milk with the right amount of the right bacteria.  The animal should be hand milked into a clean bucket and that milk is then incubated at temperatures of above 20C until it sours & sets.  The quality of the souring & set is inspected and if it has a clean set with clear whey, it can be used to inoculate the milk.  Another method is to use whey from a previous day that has been kept warm to encourage the cultures to grow and this technique is used in alpine cheesemaking and lactic set goats cheese.  Both require a degree of skill in order to get it right and make consistent cheese.  The advantage however is a truly unique product using the bacterial flora unique to the farmers own animals and own area.  The flora in a home developed starter also is more diverse which has the potential for greater complexity of flavour.  Each different type of bacteria releases different enzymes as they feed and reproduce.  Each different enzyme will break down the fats and proteins in the cheese as it matures in a different way and each will produce its own flavour notes.  Thus a diverse starter, such as a home made one or naturally bacterially rich raw milk has the potential for immensely nuanced and complex flavour.

In France & other countries in continental Europe, where cheesemaking on the farm was undisturbed in the last century there is still a greater tradition of cheesemakers making their own cultures, the knowledge of how to do it having been passed down the generations and the preservation of that knowledge cemented by it being taught in agricultural colleges teaching all aspects of cheesemaking for those who are new to the profession.  Cheeses like Comte, L’Etivaz, Gruyere, Beaufort and many lactic set goats cheeses are made using starter cultures the cheesemakers have made themselves.  Commercial starter cultures are not exclusively used in factories but certainly the use of home made starters is more common than it is in the UK.

 Salers curd in the vat

Salers curd in its wooden vat

What is less common, because it’s even more skillful and geared to attention to detail is cheese made with no starter added at all, not even a home made one.  Some notable examples that we sell are Salers, Bleu de Termignon & Tomme d’Alpage.  These rely on maintaining a historic way of making cheese and a symbiotic relationship between the land, herd, milk, equipment and atmosphere in the dairy.  The results however are delicious.  The cheeses have length, depth, complexity and subtlety.  Salers has bold flavours where Bleu de Termignon & Tomme d’Alpage can be immensely subtle yet intricate.

Above the Termignon Valley where Bleu de Termignon is made

Above the Val de Termignon where Bleu de Termignon & Tomme d'Alpage are made