By Terese Allen, Organic Valley Food Editor
People have long extolled the virtues of fermented milk products. No doubt you heard how “cheese is milk’s leap toward immortality” and “without butter, love is nothing.” To be sure, the mere mention of cream cheese or sour cream can bring on swooning sounds of “mmm.”
Dairy foods in general have been bringing pleasure to humans for millennia. No one can know exactly when the milk of mammals was first used for human consumption, but there’s evidence that Neolithic animals were domesticated as far back as 8000 or 9000 B.C. The earliest dairy farmers tended sheep and goats in the lands of present-day Iraq and Iran; by about a thousand years later they were raising cattle, too, and consuming both the meat and the milk of their herds.
What they consumed was organic, of course—pure, unadulterated and intensely nutritional, since their animals roamed on verdant, open-air pastures and ate seasonal grasses, the way nature intended them to do. But while those ancient families drank organic milk, it’s unlikely that they drank it fresh, as Americans do today. Indeed, in the warm climate of the first dairy lands, with no refrigeration, milk soured quickly. Stored in what were the most readily available containers of the time--the stomach linings of animals—milk also separated into curds and whey, since those early milk “bottles” contained rennet, a natural substance that causes milk to curdle. Drained and salted, the semi-solid mass was not only delectable, but it could keep for weeks. (Thus was cheese born—a very simple version of it, at least.)
There were other means to store milk—in clay pots, for instance, or in animal skins fashioned into rough jugs. Whatever the container, prehistoric families no doubt noticed the different ways that milk seemed to transform itself as it was left to stand. Cream that rose to the top could be removed and shaken until it turned into a sublime-tasting spread (welcome to the world, butter). The liquid it threw off was deliciously tart (hello, buttermilk). The milk left in the container thickened and also soured pleasantly (ahhh, yogurt), and its liquid byproduct, the whey, also made a refreshing beverage.
To our prehistoric ancestors these foods must have seemed like gifts from the gods, or some kind of cosmic magical trick. But it wasn’t magic; it was fermentation—milk’s own internal, organic way of preserving itself. As Harold McGee writes in his brilliant tome, On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen (Scribner), “Milk can spontaneously foster a particular group of microbes that convert its sugar into acid, and thereby preserve it for some time from spoiling or harboring disease. At the same time, the microbes also change the milk’s texture and flavor in desirable ways. This benign transformation…happened often enough that milk fermented by bacteria became important among all dairying peoples.”
Still, these folks didn’t merely sit back and let fermentation happen. Early dairyers learned to play god themselves—to develop new ways to preserve milk. McGee mentions the goat and sheep herders of southwest Asia, who further transformed fermented yogurt by drying it in the sun, aging it in oil, or brining it into something resembling today’s feta. The Tartars brewed an alcoholic beverage from mare’s milk and called it koumiss, while Indians clarified butter to make long-lasting ghee. In India, too, cooks added sweeteners to their milk and boiled it repeatedly until it concentrated into a kind of candy.
Cheese was a particularly big deal to inhabitants of the Mediterranean region; it was in fact a regular part of the diet of ancient Greeks and Romans. They developed new, more complex kinds of cheese by varying its production and storage conditions. Some homes had cheese-making kitchens and cheese lovers matured their favorites in a ripening room or took cheeses to special shops to be smoked.
In long ago Europe, too, cheese was, well, the big cheese. Milk-curdling containers found in Switzerland date back as far as 5000 B.C., but it was during the Middle Ages that European cheese making evolved into a fine craft. Climate played a key role here, for in these more northern regions cheese could be slow-aged under cool conditions. McGee notes that this discovery, “opened the door to the great diversification of cheeses, because it introduced a fifth ingredient after milk, milk bacteria, rennet, and salt: time. In the presence of moderate acidity and salt, cheese became a hospitable medium for the continuing growth and activity of a variety of microbes and their enzymes. In a sense, cheese came to life.”
It also gained considerable celebrity. European towns and even individual farms and monasteries became known for their individual specialties; some varieties, such as Parmesan, Cheddar and brie became superstars of the cheese world.
Fermented milk, you might say, had come a long way. And no wonder, for through the ages cultured dairy products had proved their worth in a multitude of ways. The earliest and most important benefit was preservation. When highly perishable milk is transformed into cheese, butter and other specialties, it can be stored for future consumption. Because of this, fermented organic dairy foods have been a cornerstone of human survival. Talk about worthwhile!
But culturing milk not only preserves it, it makes it more digestible, something which is enormously important to the majority of humans who can’t digest lactose. Only people whose heritage is from a few areas of the world (notably northern Europe) can tolerate this milk sugar. But, as luck—or, more accurately, evolution—would have it, fermentation transforms lactose into digestible lactic acid.
Author Sandor Ellix Katz explored other health benefits of fermentation in his groundbreaking book about probiotic cuisine, Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition and Craft of Live-Culture Foods. He writes that “fermentation improves the bioavailability of minerals present in food…[and] creates new nutrients,” and notes that lactobacilli, the good-guy bacteria that are present in probiotic dairy products, create omega-3 fatty acids. “Eating fermented foods live is an incredibly healthy practice, directly supplying your digestive tract with living cultures essential to breaking down food and assimilating nutrients,” says Katz.
What’s more, when fermented dairy foods are made from organically produced milk, those products offer bigger health benefits than the milk of confined animals. Pasture-raised organic milk has now been shown to offer higher levels of vitamin E, Omega 3 essential fatty acids and other antioxidants than the milk from factory farms, and when the milk comes from local, toxin-free sources, it likely will also be fresher and more alive, and therefore more nutritious.
Cultured dairy foods offer endless culinary benefits, too. Buttermilk, for example, lends moisture, tenderness and rise to baked goods. Sour cream and yogurt are beloved for their creaminess and tanginess. Melted butter is the world’s easiest (and possibly most scrumptious) sauce, and cheese, in its infinite variety, brings gustatory pleasure to diners around the world.
Indeed, cheese and other fermented edibles—and traditional dishes made from them--can be important culinary identifiers of a region or country--for instance, the tsatsiki sauce of Greece, raita in India, and Colby cheese in Wisconsin. Each of these is a cultural expression of a cultured dairy food.
And whether it’s an ethnic tradition or regional specialty, a simple sauce or an elaborate pastry, all dishes are at their tastiest when the live-culture ingredients in them are organically produced. Fresh air, clean water, quality soil and good grass—it all comes out in the flavor.
The United States has had a much shorter history with milk-based fermented fare than many other countries. (In fact, dairying was unknown in the Americas before Columbus set sail.) But because we are a nation rich in immigrant history, we are rich, too, in the live-culture traditions of our multi-ethnic heritage.
Organic cheese and many of its cultured cousins came to North America with European settlers. Butter and cheese making were common in colonial homes, especially in the cold-climate northern areas where they could be stored. Nineteenth century industrialization moved culturing from the farm to the factory, and by the early years of the twentieth century modern innovations had made dairy products more sanitized and standardized. Soon milk became big business, and the industry moved dairying away from what it had always been—an organic endeavor. And as the modern fast-food mind-set grew, dairy diversity shrunk.
But in the twenty-first century, the pendulum is starting to swing back again. Sandor Ellix Katz says, “There is most definitely a growing interest in live-culture foods [in the U.S. today]. I see it…in internet traffic and the demand for starter cultures, and in the small enterprises cropping up around the U.S. creating and selling live-culture foods. I think it is strongly related to other food movements, including those advocating local foods and sustainability, along with nutrition-focused movements, slow food, and others.”
That’s good news. It’s great news, in fact, for those who appreciate the deep flavor and variety of aged cheese or ripened butter, who thrive on the beneficial micro-organisms in probiotic yogurt, or who hunger for the connections—both nature- and culture-based—that organic fermented foods have given us since time immemorial.