Mite-y Cheese

Here’s a road I never thought I’d go down: using arthropods to flavor cheese….WHAT?!  Most excellent.

Photo Courtesy of Cabot Cheese

Last night I went to the Science Cabaret with a friend to learn about the art and science of cheesemaking.  There was chemistry, food science, tasting, and to my surprise, entomology as well!

Enter: cheese mites.  At first I was wondering if they were just referring to unknown creatures as “mites” but indeed, cheese mites are truly mites in the subclass Acari.  Often times, these cheese mites are considered a pest of stored food (maybe in this case aged food) if their arrival is unexpected.  The best way to deal with mite pests is to vacuum the cheese to remove mites (no joke) and make sure to keep the aging shelves clean to prevent mites from recolonizing.

But sometimes, cheese mites are good.  Really.  In fact, cheese makers will purposely introduce mites as part of the maturing process to flavor the cheese and get a good rind.  A study published recently identified two important cheese mites: Acarus siro on Mimolette cheese and Tyrolichus casei on Milbenkase cheese.  These two styles of cheese are specialty cheeses from France and Germany, respectively.  Section a in the figure below illustrates a mite specimen of A. siro. b, c, and d illustrate identifying morphological characteristics of cheese mites.

Photo courtesy of Journal of Dairy Science

There are a few other arthropods associated with cheese making, including cheese flies in the family Piophilidae. These flies are not specific to cheese and may be pests of cured meats or cause intestinal damage in humans.  But the intentional introduction of maggots to pecorino cheese yields the Italian delicacy casu marzu.  See Gordon Ramsey’s segment below.

Mmm cheese.  Even Mental Floss is blogging about it.  And Tina Fey.  Better get working on my night cheese.

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