One of the most common questions I get about our dairy products is: “How long will this cheese keep?” My answer is always the same, “How strong do you like your cheese?”
I remember vividly, during my undergrad at the University of Guelph, one of my professors proposed a scenario to us. “Imagine you were lost, walking around for days with no food for days. 10 days, and you have had nothing to eat. After wandering for 10 days, you are starving, and you see a house. You walk into that house and you frantically look in the fridge. It is empty. The kitchen cupboards are empty! You look around in panic and on the kitchen counter you see two things that have been sitting there for the same length of time you have gone without food, 10 days. One, a steak. Two, a glass of milk. You are near death from starvation. You will die without food. Which do you eat?”
I remember how disgusted I was and how hopeless that question felt. “You will die no matter which you pick!” was my response. You will die from eating that steak for sure. And that glass of milk, eating that will kill you too, and of course starvation is also a killer. I remember listening to the anxious buzz of murmur from all of us in the lecture hall, then the answer came, “You will eat the glass of milk, and you will live.”
“What?! Really??” was my response. Then our professor went on to explain about the microbes that live in milk and how they are good for us, they will not make us sick.
There is a lot of talk and discussion right now from health advocates and certainly on the Internet about eating “live” foods. How important it is to eat something that is alive or was recently alive. We are living beings, and if we want to live, we must eat living things, because after all, we have all heard the expression “You are what you eat.” The recommended lists of live foods always include the obvious plants: fruits and vegetables, which technically are not alive anymore as they have been cut off from their food source. I see them as being in stasis, they are good until they start to rot. The one food that is truly alive and still living is our dairy products.
My scientist brain always shouts “But what about dairy? How can they NOT include dairy products on that list?!” I am referring to fermented dairy products that are made the way humans have made them for thousands of years. Cheeses that are made from allowing millions of microbes to grow in the milk, which magically turns that milk into curds and whey, and eventually cheese. Kefir, which is fermented milk made by a wide variety of millions of microbes. Yogurt that is made the way yogurt was originally made, by encouraging growth of microbes to create a curd that we call yogurt. All dairy products that we consume are made by microbes. Dairy products made right are teeming with life and are very much alive. Most of us are unaware of the microscopic world that surrounds us, at River’s Edge Goat Dairy we work with the tiny world every moment of every day.
When I am feeding our goats, I do not feed our goats. I am feeding the ecosystem of microbes that live in the goats’ digestive system. The digestive system of the goat is incredible. Goats belong to a family of animals called “ruminants”. You know you are looking at a ruminant when you see them chew their cud (yes, they bring up their food and chew it again) and you see cloven hooves. If you see an animal with these two characteristics, cud chewing and the two toes of a cloven hoof, you are looking at a ruminant. Goats, cows, sheep, deer, and camels are all ruminants. They have four parts to their “stomach”. Each of these parts plays a different role in digesting the foodstuffs these ruminants eat. Ruminants eat a lot of forage. Forages are feedstuffs such as hay, grass, leaves, the whole plant of a grain, bark, twigs, etc. Anything that survives chewing and is left long enough for microbes to attach on and form a colony is a forage. Forages are essential to a ruminant’s life. The animal does not digest the food, the microbes in their digestive system do. Ruminants can eat grass, hay, corn stalks, twigs, bark, and leaves and thrive off it. We humans cannot survive on a diet of grasses, twigs, and leaves because we are monogastrics, meaning we have one simple stomach. For a ruminant most of the digestion takes place in the largest part of the ruminant’s “stomach”, the rumen. The rumen is like a giant fermentation vat, chalk full of microbes. These microbes digest the forages and the BY-PRODUCTS expelled from the microbes are what, for the most part, fuels the ruminant. The microbe population is critical to the ruminant’s life. If this population of microbes dies, the animal dies! The way to keep a ruminant alive…. feed them forages. All ruminants MUST have forages in their diet, or they will DIE! Yes, ALL cows and goats MUST have forages in their diets, or they will not survive. They need a constant supply of forages. It is these forages that the microbes in the rumen live on. If the goat’s rumen is empty for longer than a few hours, the will microbes die off. Once the microbes die, the goat’s rumen stops working. The animal develops what is called “acidosis”. The blood acidifies, organs cannot function, the animal dies. I can go on for pages and pages about how the rumen works and what I know about how ruminants BUT for this discussion, the takeaway for you is, MICROBES ARE VITAL TO A RUMINANTS LIFE. I challenge you to ask, are microbes vital to YOUR life?
I, and many others know the answer to this question is yes. Absolutely, hands down, no question asked, microbes are essential to our lives. We need them. We need them in constant flow, just like my goats do. Goats get their constant flow of microbes by sustaining the ecosystem of microbes in their rumen. We are not ruminants. We cannot sustain a population of microbes in our guts, we must get our microbes by eating them and eating them often. The cheeses, yogurt, and kefir we make at River’s Edge Goat Dairy are different than the dairy products most people have access to. Those of you who consume our products know this already. You may have not been consciously aware of this, but your body knows! The dairy products at River’s Edge Goat Dairy are FULL of microbes. All the dairy products we sell are alive.
But dairy is frowned upon by most groups. And I understand why. The dairy found in the grocery store is NOT the dairy our ancestors grew up with. Cheeses, yogurts, kefirs are not made with the patience and love required to grow a healthy population of microbes.
Patience = Time.
Time = Money.
Also, our brains do not interpret taste the same way they did 150 years ago. Any food that is in a package on the grocery store shelf is engineered to meet a human’s desire for fat, salt and sweet. Grocery store shelf space is valuable. The food sitting on these shelves must sell and sell quickly otherwise the grocery store will not make money on that valuable shelf space. Competition by food producers for shelf space is fierce. Hence the need for engineered food to appeal to a human’s palate. Food that tricks our brains into thinking fruits and vegetables are not sweet and natural yogurts and kefir do not taste good. Hence the need for added sugars in most of the fermented dairy products in the grocery store. Yogurt and kefir are the obvious, I have seen lots of cheeses in the grocery store too that have added sugar to appeal to the taste buds. Cranberry goat cheese anyone? (ok, the cranberry masks the taste of the “goaty" flavour too, a topic for another blog, but I think you get my point)
All these added sugars…. what do they do? They mess with the growth of the microbes. Microbes grow and multiply differently in sugar.
By this point, I hope you can see where my values and beliefs around how we produce food at River’s Edge Goat Dairy come from. I am determined to bring you the BEST food possible and that includes the parts of the food you may not be aware of.
Microbes are vital for our health, just like they are for the ruminant. However, our demise from a lack of microbes is slower and not so obvious as that of one of our goats. This is one reason microbes are not in the forefront of our discussion when it comes to nutrition and what we should be eating. We humans need microbes and Mother Nature provided us with the ideal way to get them, through our dairy products. At River’s Edge Goat Dairy, we make all our products with patience, time, and love. We do not make our products to compete with products on the grocery store shelf. We make our products with only ONE thing in mind. YOU. We want you to thrive.
Our milk, cheeses, yogurt, and kefir are living organisms. The ecosystem of microbes in our products continues to grow and evolve over time. ALL our products start out the same way, as milk that comes form the goat. Our production of product is simply managing microbes. We pasteurize, or gently cook our milk to reduce the population of microbes and destroy any of the “nasties” that could be present such as salmonella, listeria, brucellosis, botulism, and e-coli. (we use a different process than “The Big Guys” that leaves the properties of our milk close to its uncooked state. All the goodness is still there, minus the pathogens that potentially make you sick.) The microbes left in the milk continue to consume the milk. These microbes turn fluid milk sour and chunky, hence the need for refrigeration of dairy products to keep the growth of microbes in check so your milk still tastes good and is not lumpy. We, as cheesemakers, add desired microbes to our milk to make dairy products. Different species of microbes are used for different products. The microbes we add to make yogurt are different than the ones we add to make kefir, which are different than the ones we add to make cheese. We can add microbes to create certain characteristics, such as the holes, or eyes, in Swiss cheese. As cheeses age, microbes continue to consume the components of the original milk. This changes the texture and taste of your cheese. The cheeses typically get softer or stronger over time. The cheese will never go “bad” in a way that will make you sick, but it may get to a point that you no longer enjoy the taste. My favourite cheese is Pippa, but only a Pippa that is at least 21 days old. Enough time for those microbes to work their magic and create that beautiful gooey, flavourful, melt in your mouth cheese. Not everyone likes Pippa like this.
Back to the original question: “How long will this cheese keep?” and now I hope you understand my answer of “How strong do you like your cheese?”
My thoughts after writing this blog: It is so fun being a cheesemaker! We are really the ultimate microbiologists. We must understand this tiny world to bring YOU the best food possible. As farmers and cheese makers, we have the choice to cultivate and grow microbes or just produce food to move off that grocery store shelf. At River’s Edge Goat Dairy, we are ALWAYS caretakers of our microbes, whether in the land, goats or in your cheese. This is ONE reason I get so much joy from producing your food. My life truly has purpose and meaning which bring me immense happiness. I am grateful for this every day. My absolute goal is to have EVERYONE who produces and provides food to work from this place of meaning and purpose. Imagine how healthy and happy all on Earth would be if we did this??? You are consciously making the choice to better health for all when you support our farm by buying the food we produce. I ALWAYS say it, THANK YOU for supporting our farm! We could not do what we do without you 😊