The evening sun is slanting through the wide doorways, falling on shelves where cheeses sit snugly in piles of hay. The cheeses are unusual, odd-looking, and the sunlight renders them in stark shadows, dramatic and beautiful. A Turkish goat and sheeps’ milk cheese looms large and lopsided in a goatskin shroud, a hulking, hairy Quasimodo beside its neighbour, a small round of camels’ milk cheese from Ethiopia feathered with a delicate grey mould. The Polish oscypek, moulded in the traditional spindle shape, is carefully patterned with decorative imprints. My camera is snapping incessantly. They’re all so beautiful, and so bizarre.
Sadly, these days the word “endangered” applies to more than just animal species: some of the world’s oldest, most traditional, most insane-looking cheeses are in real danger of becoming extinct. Slow Food has stepped in as the Noah of the situation, inviting imperilled cheeses to cuddle up alongside vanishing vegetable varietals and rare animal breeds aboard its Ark of Taste, founded with the specific objective of saving endangered foods from around the globe.
Our world is a different place than it used to be. The majority of foods are made by machine rather than by hand, and the pressure to produce ever cheaper food at ever higher speeds is constant; it’s become easier and more “normal” to mass-produce poor quality, homogenised and generic foods and sell them at a low price. Traditional dairy products, which cost more to make in terms of both time and money, are disappearing at an alarming rate. Issues like overly-strict regulation from food safety authorities, loss of mountain pastures, and the effects of the economic recession are only serving to worsen the problem. France alone has lost over 50 cheeses in the past 30 years.
If endangered cheeses continue to disappear, we are losing more than just the products themselves (and that alone is worth mourning.) We’re losing the skills and crafts associated with their production, along with recipes, special techniques and family secrets which have been passed down through generations of cheesemakers. In some cases, we’re losing rare breeds of cows, goats, or sheep, the pastures they’ve lived on forever, or the herders they need to survive. We’re giving up part of our shared cultural history and long-standing traditions, while being robbed of our freedom to decide what we eat: you might not ever want to put your mouth anywhere near a cheese crawling with maggots, but you should certainly have the option of doing so should you so choose. We are being flooded with a deluge of generic, industrialised, bland and boring products, and it is overwhelming and scary.
We have to swim against the current, keep our heads above water and our eyes fixed on real food. Slow Food is traversing the world with the Ark of Taste gathering endangered foods from a myriad of different cultures, with over 1,300 products aboard to date. In September this year, the Ark docked at the international Slow Food Cheese festival in Bra, northern Italy, in order to highlight the plight of thousands of traditionally-made dairy products across the globe. With its Save A Cheese campaign, Slow Food has invited people to nominate cheeses for a place aboard the Ark. These were set proudly on display at the festival, where I stood in the sloping sunlight admiring (and eagerly photographing) the wealth of weird and wonderful cheeses I mentioned earlier. The list of dairy products in distress includes the artisan raw milk cheddars from Somerset, England that I talked about last week, as well as some much more unusual varieties.
This subject is close to my heart, as Irish raw milk cheeses are already considered by Slow Food to be endangered, and have been designated a Presidium (or protected) product. Furthermore, artisan cheesemakers are some of the most hardworking people I’ve ever come across; it genuinely upsets me to think that so many of them get so little reward for their labour, and that cheeses which are mass-produced on huge, sterile factory floors continue to out-sell their lovingly-crafted products. The market is incredibly tough for small-scale producers to try to compete in, and the quality of dairy the world over is suffering as a result.
This is something that any and all cheese-lovers, and indeed food-lovers, should care deeply about. The tide of industrialised foods continues to rise, but we can’t let it wash away thousands of years of tradition. What can we do to save these endangered products? Buy more of them. Eat more of them. The idea of eating something to save it sounds ludicrous, but there is method in this madness. By making the conscious decision to choose quality artisan cheeses produced on a small scale, we are swimming against the current, paddling furiously alongside the Ark of Taste and showing our support for those foods that are in danger of disappearing for good. The bigger the demand for real cheeses, the better the situation will get; maybe, just maybe, it’s still possible to eat our way out of this flood.
Got anything to say about weird and wonderful dairy products, endangered foods, Slow Food, the Ark of Taste, or why Noah didn’t just swat those damn two mosquitoes and save us all a lot of trouble?! Drop me a comment below.