The Frontal Cortex

Darwin and Cheese

From the great Harold McGee comes an investigation into raw milk, bacteria and cultural evolution:

On our journey up to the Stichelton Dairy last September, Mr. Hodgson [a cheesemaker] explained how cheese quality progressed for centuries, then declined in the age of mass production and supermarkets.

“I think of it as a Darwinian process,” he said. “People make cheeses many times a year, in many ways, and all kinds of factors — accidents, chance, laziness, intentional changes — cause variations in the result. In the past, the changes that caused an improvement survived because consumers selected the better cheese. The problem today is that there’s very little selection pressure to improve quality, because people don’t get to taste cheeses and compare them before buying. So instead they choose on the basis of price, looks and advertising.”

For more than two decades, Mr. Hodgson has worked to restore selection pressure for excellence in British cheeses. Customers at his shops in Covent Garden and near Borough Market are encouraged to taste before they buy. Then he visits the cheesemakers “as the customer’s proxy,” tasting through their cheeses with them, buying selectively, and working with them to improve consistency and quality.

Mr. Hodgson is a proponent of cheeses made with raw milk. Many scientific studies have confirmed that they have an especially full flavor thanks to the ripening activity of harmless bacteria present in the milk. Pasteurization eliminates these bacteria.

So do your part and buy raw milk cheese. (I promise that, once you taste a raw milk Brie de Meux, you’ll never go back to that mass produced stuff.) Help preserve bacterial diversity in cheesemaking!


  1. #1 Moopheus
    December 5, 2007

    I’ve had the Neil’s Yard cheddar (not as often as I’d like–it’s pretty pricey to buy here) and it is very good cheese–I can believe they’d produce an excellent Stilton. Not my favorite cheese, but my wife likes it.

  2. #2 mph
    December 5, 2007

    I believe in the Intelligent Design of cheese, because it is implausible that Easy Cheese could arise from Darwin’s theory of cheesy evolution.

  3. #3 tim
    December 5, 2007

    I live in Minnesota so cheese falls off trees here. Cheese was always everywhere in my upbringing. But it was always the mass produced stuff or the government stuff (remember the big cheese giveaways?) and so I always underwhelmed. Until recently at least. Within blocks of my house a dedicated cheese shop opened and I stopped in. All I can is wow. Get out of the big boxes and look into places that specialize in cheese and you won’t be disappointed.

  4. #4 Epistaxis
    December 5, 2007

    harmless bacteria present in the milk. Pasteurization eliminates these bacteria.

    I like how we need not one, but two, disclaimers to avoid the knee-jerk (or gut, as it were) reaction to reading about bacteria.

  5. #5 J-Dog
    December 5, 2007

    Once again St. Python has already spoken on this subject:

    What a lovely cheese.

  6. #6 Jason Failes
    December 5, 2007

    As off-topic as this sounds, this reminds me of the eugenics discussions as of late.

    I’m sure you’ve all heard variants like “If you really believe in evolution, than surely you must think that the strongest should survive and so therefore we should sterilize the mentally retarded etc etc”.

    However, this makes one strange assumption, that the only way that we can “help” evolution along (assuming for a moment that evolution needs helping), is to promote radical (and often arbitrary) selection criteria.

    But (and here’s where it gets back to this blog), why isn’t it just as valid (and far more moral) to promote an increase in variation, giving evolution more to select from?

    Vive la varietie! (of both cheeses and people)

  7. #7 peggy
    December 6, 2007

    Re the previous post and Vive la variété! (of both cheeses and people).

    As Charles de Gaulle famously said, of France and the French: “Comment voulez-vous gouverner un pays qui a 246 variétés de fromage?”

    I like the idea of eugenics as a form of pasteurization!

  8. #8 kapan
    March 7, 2009


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