The "guerrilla cheesemaker" explains his practice and why natural is best.
Posted on 22 July, 2019
David Asher is an organic farmer, farmstead cheesemaker, cheese educator and author based on the gulf islands of British Columbia, Canada. Through personal work and through the Black Sheep School of Cheesemaking, Asher explores traditionally cultured and more organic methods of cheesemaking.
His workshops teach a cheesemaking method that is natural, DIY, and well suited to the home kitchen or artisanal production, something he’ll be demonstrating during his five-day workshop at Farm of Ideas on August 5th. We caught up with Asher ahead of the course to chat all things cheese.
How did you fall into cheesemaking?
I met a raw goat’s milk cheesemaker in Canada while learning about organic agriculture and became enamoured with the idea of farmstead cheesemaking. When I started farming myself, I kept goats and started to make raw-milk cheese of my own to feed myself and my neighbours.
I approached the medium of milk like I did my agriculture; saving seeds of my beloved plants from one year to the next, preserving my harvest through fermentation. I made my cheese like I did my sourdough breads, my natural wines, my fermented pickles and sauerkrauts – by adding a culture that I kept like a sourdough starter. I should say that Sandor Katz’s teachings on fermentation were a primary influence on my approach, for I couldn’t find mentors to teach me cheesemaking the way I thought it could be practiced.
I didn’t realise it at the time, but I had essentially stumbled upon traditions of cheesemaking that had long been forgotten in North America and even to a great extent in Europe. Most cheese made today is produced by pasteurising milk and adding freeze-dried cultures – to give life to that now lifeless milk. Even raw-milk cheesemakers add these same microbes to their milk, they don’t understand its innate ability to ferment.
When I made my first batches of camembert, I couldn’t bring myself to add a package of frozen fungal spores. All styles of cheese were created long before we even knew microorganism were involved. It seemed only natural to let my milk ferment much like traditional cheesemakers would have, and what do you know – it worked!
The more I explored the idea of traditional ferments in cheesemaking, the more I came to realise that these methods felt right, that they were the way towards the sustainable future I want to see. Meanwhile I had started teaching classes to the public; the more I taught the more I realised I had to learn. When I felt confident enough with the universality of these natural methods, I decided to write a book about them.
My ideas have struck a chord with cheesemakers and eaters all over the world. My wife and I have decided to take time away from farming and goat-herding, to devote ourselves to travelling and teaching natural cheesemaking everywhere we’re invited. We’re now getting to inspire cheesemakers first hand and learn about traditional methods everywhere we teach.
You describe yourself as a “guerrilla cheesemaker” who says “no to Big Dairy” – could you expand on this?
The vast majority of cultures and rennets used by cheesemakers around the world today are produced by two transnational corporations: Dupont, owners of Danisco, and Chr. Hansen. Corporate interference in our food system is staggering! In cheese, perhaps more than in any other food, their control of the culture is nearly complete. The consequence for farmers is that more of their income is taken from these agrochemical/biotech companies; the consequence for consumers is that many of the cheeses that they eat are unknowingly produced with questionable ingredients, often genetically modified.
Cheesemakers are informed by the culture companies of best practice and purchase nearly all of their supplies, aside from milk, from them. But cheesemakers need not purchase a single item from the big dairy companies: every cheesemaker could be capable of producing all of the culture that they need from their milk and all of the rennet that they need from their herds.
Farmers should be in control of their culture and do not need to purchase anything to make good cheese. This idea is revolutionary, worthy of being considered guerrilla tactics.
You teach internationally – do you find different cultures have different responses to your methods? For example, legislation can be restrictive around the use of raw milk – does this impact how receptive students are?
In Europe, commercial cheesemakers are inclined to consider the natural.
European Union regulations allow special permissions for traditional cheesemaking: with raw milk, natural materials, and with whey. PDO designations often call for the use of natural methods, like reusing a whey starter or natural rennet. Such practices are still very rare, and it’s generally only younger cheesemakers who have not learned the industrial methods, or cheesemakers looking to define their cheeses as something distinctly from their farm, that have taken natural ideas to heart.
Complete restrictions on raw-milk cheesemaking are rare, I’ve only encountered such circumstances in Iceland! Even in most countries that permit raw-milk, cheesemakers do not work with the naturally-occurring microbes. The practice of raw-milk cheesemaking is considered risky and packaged cultures are considered by most to be the safest option.
In North America, where cheesemaking is seen less as a culturally significant food, and more of a luxury or a value-added product, commercial cheesemakers are less inclined to consider the value of traditional ideas. However, with a growing interest in fermentation, homesteaders and foodies have taken to these ideas in Canada and the United States.
Surprisingly, I’ve had the greatest interest from Eastern Europe and Latin America, where cheese is an important part of the culture and cheesemakers have found freedom in the natural methods. With limited access to purchased cultures, and fewer food safety restrictions, cheesemakers in countries like Uruguay and the Ukraine have run with these ideas more than any other.
I’m interested on your stance on the use of calf rennet, could you explain why it’s so fundamental to cheesemaking and why you refuse to use GM rennet?
In large part because it values the veal that are born into dairies, and considers them a part of the ecosystem of farming. Vegetarian rennet, on the other hand, forces farmers to discard their veal calves, often before they have drunk their mothers’ milk. They’re purchased from auction by confined animal feedlots and raised in confinement on milk replacer and grain to make poor quality meat that is sold cheaply at supermarkets and stocks the supply chain of fast food companies.
Valuing veal and using calf rennet avoids contributing to an agricultural system that is amongst the most destructive on earth and makes a cheese that is arguably more ethical. Cheese can only be as vegetarian as the milk that makes it, using a so-called vegetarian rennet in cheesemaking does not solve any problems.
That term vegetarian is a decoy, to distract attention from the true nature of the enzymes that by and large replace traditional rennet in cheesemaking today. Vegetarian cheese is often made with genetically modified rennets, which are created by what is by no means a benign technology. In the case of cheesemaking, genetically engineered rennets change the rules of the game – they take away income from farmers and put money in the hands of the corporations that are controlling the production of our food more than ever.
What do you hope to be the biggest takeaway for students from your Farm of Ideas workshop?
That natural is possible! Cheesemaking need not be about sterilisation, sanitation, pasteurisation and rigid microbiological control. Cheesemaking should be about celebrating the life-giving elixir that is milk and working with its nature to transform it into an even more extraordinary food!
What are you most excited about personally with regards to the Farm of Ideas workshop?
I’m excited to connect with the world renowned and cutting-edge food community in Copenhagen and in Denmark at large. I’m also thrilled to collaborate with a business that is putting these ideas of sustainability and food production into practice. It’s sure to be a great class!