Tuesday, January 03, 2012

The Dust that Moves.

I promised you something on cheese mites today. I hope I don’t put you off cheese. Or honey. Or flour. Or any other staple foodstuffs. A little knowledge of mites and other micro-fauna makes you realise that veganism and vegetarianism can only ever be relative.

Like it or not, you must accept it. There is no agricultural practice or food technology process that can remove every little beast from the food you eat. Food laws take this into account, and there are allowable levels of all sorts of insects and animal detritus (‘filth types’, according to the US Food and Drug Administration) in all sorts of products. Medical knowledge supports this principle too – have you heard of the ‘Hygiene Hypothesis’? Basically it means that exposure to a certain amount of dirt and bugs is good for the development of the immune system in a growing child, and suggests that a modern pre-occupation with avoiding germs - to the extent that children are not allowed to get dirty, and there is a sanitiser for every home surface - has led to disturbed immunity and an escalation in the incidence of allergies and associated diseases.

I will give you one small example of the ubiquity of insect and other inclusions in common foods, in order to help you put your feelings about cheese mites into perspective. The US Food and Drug Administration’s Defect Level Handbook states that the defect action level for peanut butter is: 

-           An average of 30 or more insect fragments per 100 grams.
-          An average of 1 or more rodent hairs per 100 grams.

Now, cheese mites are positively tasty. Sometimes, cheesemakers actually encourage the little critters. Mites belong to the same large zoological family do spiders, and to prove it they have eight hairy legs. They are not at all related to maggots. The cheese mite goes by the scientific name of Tyrophagus casei, and it is cousin to Acarus siro, the flour mite (who also likes cheese). You cannot see an individual cheese mite with the naked eye. They were, in fact, one of the first microscopic creatures described in the very early seventeenth century, when the art and skill of making magnifying lenses and microscopes was being developed. Although you cannot see them, if you brush the dust off the cheese rind (or spread a little flour on the bench), and you go back later, and the dust has moved – it is significantly infested with mites. If it doesn’t appear to have moved, it doesn’t mean there are no mites at all.

The provision of a spoon with which to eat the cheese mites in Defoe’s time is a marvellous example of making a virtue of necessity. Today we would see heavy infestation with cheese mites as demonstrating that the cheese was old and had not been stored properly. There are a couple of exceptions to this however. The German quark cheese, Milbenkäse, is made with the specific assistance of Tyrophagus casei, and the French Mimolette with Acarus siro. There may be others that I am not aware of. The mites add a crumbly crust and a piquant flavour. Now go eat some.

Recipe for the Day.
This comes to you again today courtesy of the witty Mistress Dodds, and her The Cooks & Housewife's Manual (1826).

Roasted Cheese to serve as a Relish.
Grate three ounces of good mellow cheese, and the same quantity of bread. Mix these with two ounces of butter, the beat yolks of two eggs, some made mustard, pepper, and salt. Mash in a mortar, and spread this past on small toasts cut as sippets. Toast brown, and trim these, and serve them very hot.

Quotation for the Day.

Don't forget that the flavors of wine and cheese depend upon the types of infecting microorganisms.
Martin H. Fischer


carolina said...

This cheese receipt (recipe) sounds very much like the one for Pounded Cheese, only there are no eggs. Love it! On the insects...is the "maggots in cheese served as a dish" a real food? Or is it perhaps a mis-understanding of mites, maggots, etc. and their role in producing a particular food? There's a scene in the video series, "The Supersizers Go Regency, in which they're served, and are expected to eat, a chunk of cheese with maggots crawling in, and all, over it. (yum?!)

Keith said...

Well we learn something every day. A great post, thank you.
Regards, Keith.
Armidale NSW.

Keith said...

I have posted the links to both of your cheese posts in a post on my blog. This info is great for those interested in 18th century living history, historical trekking trail foods, & survival foods.
Many thanks.
Regards, Keith. Armidale NSW.

Jan said...

Oh my.

I love your posts -- thank you!

The Old Foodie said...

Thanks all for your coments. I am on the trail of a very 'maggoty' cheese at present, so I hope to entertain and horrify you all a bit more yet.

Kev said...

Cf the Supersizers, Fergus Henderson had a go at some traditional Italian maggoty cheese on some show. Would have been on SBS in Oz. Very strong taste (very strong!), but not outside the realm of reason.

The Old Foodie said...

Hi Kev. My apologies for the late reply. I was not aware of the episode you mention, so thanks! I will watch out for it on the re-runs.