While France is known across the globe for its cheese production, that same industry is encountering some serious difficulty at the moment. Due to a lack of microbial diversity caused by a thorough selection of ferments over time and strict regulations, many cheeses are on the verge of extinction. Science could bring some answers even though the risk that the cheeses might taste differently is rather big.
Cheese is essentially milk, turned into curds by a multitude of microorganisms. Those ferments have been carefully selected by humans and are subject to a series of food regulations, determining which ferments can be used and how. Cheeses carrying the Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) label are especially limited in which microorganisms cheesemakers can or cannot use. So when a string of ferments is lost, in great part due to a lack of microbial diversity, the type of cheese relying on it could, at least in theory, become extinct.
Blue cheeses uses the Penicillium roqueforti fungi in order to produce their well-known characteristics. Two of the four species known so far are domesticated populations, of whom one is dedicated to PDO for Roquefort and all the other blue cheeses come from the other strain of P. roqueforti. But now, that single strain is coming to exhaustion due to the lack of microbial diversity.
“We’ve been able to domesticate these invisible organisms just as we did with dogs or cabbage,” explained Jeanne Ropars, from the Ecology, Systematics and Evolution Laboratory. “But what happened, as it does every time an organism large or small is subject to overly drastic selection, is that their genetic diversity has been greatly reduced. Working with microorganisms, the cheese makers didn’t realise that they had selected a single individual, which is not sustainable over the long term.”
Thanks to the work of Ropars and her team, however, a fifth species of P. roqueforti has been discovered in the less-known Termignon blue cheese, a discovery that could save blue cheeses from going extinct. It also means that researches will take the risk of sexual reproduction of the ferments, creating diversity but also causing greater variability in the product.
The case for Camembert, a PDO cheese produced in Normandy, is even worse. This cheese is based on the ferment Penicillium camemberti, a white mutant that was selected for Brie cheeses in 1898 and Camemberts in 1902, and later on cheesemakers decided to only work with the albino chain of this ferment. This meant the Camembert adopted its white and silky texture but also meant that little by little, the ferment lost all its capabilities to reproduce by itself, both sexually and asexually.
What can be done to save the Camembert remains unknown, although returning to a wild chain of P. camemberti could be the solution – entailing that its properties would change considerably.