Cheese, Please


Pan, furmài, e vin l’è ‘l maià del cuntadìn 

Bread, cheese, and wine are the vittles of country folk

In the past I have written about wine and bread; I am not sure if I am smart enough to write about cheese, but I will try anyway.

Theory is always a good place to start, and for this column that means Michel Serrres’ parasite theory. As proof of concept, we can see instantly that wine, cheese and bread have at least one thing in common: they are all products of parasitic agency, namely fermentation by colonies of yeast or bacteria. Fermentation is one of the oldest forms of food preservation and it was absolutely vital to the development of human civilization, because as dramatic as the development of agriculture was in terms of increasing food production, it did not in and of itself solve the problem of food preservation, which was essential to surviving the winter months after the summer and fall harvests were complete.

This is of course where parasites stepped in to save the day. To look at the process properly, however, we have to remember that parasitic agency is serial, meaning that it occurs in a chain of relations, with the host being exploited by one parasite, another parasite exploiting that parasite, then another doing the same, and so on to form a never ending chain of parasitic relations that constitutes the basic mechanism of collective life on Earth, whether it be biological, social, political or economic.

So let’s take a look at cheese, which in fact derives from the Latin caseus (cheese), and that probably from the proto Indo-European, kwat, which means, indeed, to ferment, to sour. Queso, the Spanish for cheese, is cognate, as is casein in English, a form of protein found in milk, as might be casera, a kind of cheese that is common to the Valtellina. Formaggio, the standard Italian equivalent for cheese, has its origins in forma, referencing the process of rendering cheese into solid forms, or using such forms to do so. Surprisingly, at least in this case, it is English rather than Italian that offers the clearer path to our shared linguistic origins.

In assessing a parasitic chain, one always starts with the Sun and Earth, two elements that host the growing of grass, which a cow eats, which produces milk, which humans drink… until it spoils. Here is where the next parasite in the chain — after the grass, after the cow, after the humans — steps in to exploit this rich store of nutrition. These bacteria are members of the Lactobacillus or Lactococcus family, and as they colonize, say, a pail of milk that a human left standing after parasitically removing it from the cow — warm, open and unused — they turn it from a liquid into a solid. Remember, the way of the parasite is to analyze (select), paralyze (eliminate) and catalyze (transform); so the Lactobacillus helveticus, to pick just one possible species, analyzes the pail of milk (which had actually been analyzed by the human before it), paralyzes any competing organisms that would interfere with its own parasitization, and catalyzes the milk, turning into cheese. Later on, of course, the humans reinserted themselves into the parasitic chain, by selecting the Lactobacillus helveticus (or whichever family member they preferred depending on what kind of cheese they wanted to make), eliminating the bacteria that would interfere with the cheese making process, and transforming, for their own ends and to their own tastes, the pail of milk into a block of cheese, a form of formaggio.

So it is no mistake that early humans learned to live with their parasites. A recent study suggests that our microbiomes, the colonies of bacteria that live in our digestive system and make so much of what our bodies do possible, are very much based in the particular places in which we live: in the air we breathe, in the water we drink, in the people we kiss, and especially in the food we eat. The place in which we live, in which we are parasites, in turn gets inside of us, and colonizes us, acting as mediator and translator for those very place based elements that we put into our bodies to sustain us. The conclusion of the study therefore is that there may not be one best diet for human beings; it depends very much on the nature of the place in which you live.

So it may have been more than simple preservation that made pan, furmài, e vin l’è ‘l maià del cuntadìn. The inhabitants of the Valtellina thrived on bread, cheese and wine not only because it stayed wholesome during the winter months, but because it contained the very same parasites that inhabited their bodies, which informed and characterized their particular and collective microbiomes, and therefore acted as ambassadors and translators between people and place. They did not do well on just any bread, any cheese and any wine; it had to be their bread, their cheese and their wine. It is a wisdom and a phenomenon that exists only in relatively contained and relatively isolated communities, which one which modern industrialized life, including modern and industrial forms of food production, food preservation and food consumption, has completely disrupted and destroyed. Seen in this way, the highly regionalized dietary and culinary traditions that characterize Italy and Italians should not be seen as held over and obsolete provincialisms, but as expressions of the highest form of relations between humans and the earth they inhabit, which they live on and live off of.

Let me close with a theoretical note, one I probably should have included earlier. The word ‘parasite’ derives from the Greek ‘parasitos’ , ‘para’ meaning ‘next to’ and ‘sitos’ meaning ‘bread’. The parasite is the entity that is ‘next to the bread’, but also next to the wine and next to the cheese. This simple, primary relationship lies at the core of human civilization. The Italian proclivity to celebrate it and well, preserve it, is highly commendable, and a model for the rest of the world, especially the industrialized parts, where the understanding and appreciation for this vital relationship has all but disappeared and/or been destroyed.