Cheesology: exploring the science behind cheese-making


If you've been wondering how to tell your curds from your whey, Edinburgh International Science Festival cheese expert Paul Thomas has got you covered

Cheese, surely one of mankind’s greatest achievements. Imagine a world without it. French culture, actually all culture, would be stifled; many of the world’s most beloved dishes would be defunct or non-existent; and the Mighty Boosh would never have met Tommy Nookah. What’s more, Stone Age peoples would never have produced enough calories to survive over winter in northern climes, so Scotland wouldn’t be what it is. Cheese has fundamentally shaped our landscapes and societies, so, as great achievements go, it’s definitely up there. But, how much do we know about it?

We have been making it for thousands of years but when you consider it, cheese is pretty mysterious. A blend of milk, microbes and salt produces everything from banal block cheddar to complex roqueforts and reblochons. Three ingredients, yet infinite variety. There’s no constant; everything from the colour, texture, shape, density, weight, smell and taste, are mutable. How many foods can boast of such variety? There are no commonly eaten mouldy versions of bread. You don’t see much in the way of spreadable coffee, or crumbly ham. So what is it about cheese that makes one taste as different from the next as chalk and, er…

Well, on Saturday 2 April, there’s an opportunity to find out, when Cheeseology comes to the Edinburgh International Science Festival. Hosted by cheese polymath Paul Thomas, Cheeseology is dubbed as an ‘exploration of the food science that lies behind the development of flavour in different cheese varieties’. Through a combination of tastings and talks he’ll take the audience through the microbiology and biochemistry behind cheesemaking and trace the panoply of flavours in cheese back to their source.

Thomas is a good man for the job. A biochemist by training and pan-European cheesemaking consultant by profession, he’s on a quest to map out the processes that turn milk and microbes into flavour. Cheeseology, he says, ‘will be a simplified version of the day job, rooting out the causes of flavours and textures in cheeses’. It will all be illustrated in a delicious way by tastings of salient cheeses from the excellent George Mewes Cheese. As well as being fodder for food dorks, this is a chance to dive deep into why you like the cheeses you do, and what to look out for when you’re buying cheese.

Affable and authoritative, Thomas has a talent for bringing complex concepts to life. And, most importantly, he loves his cheese, wistfully recalling taste memories of the Irish washed rinds and perfect stiltons he worked with during his four years as an affineur at IJ Mellis’ warehouse on Albion Road in Edinburgh. He also loves his science, going all geekishly excitable over graphs on enzyme activity, and ‘the complex stuff going on at a molecular level when curds form’.

If it sounds dry, it isn’t; this is cheese we’re talking about after all, and Thomas breaks it down for the layperson, contextualizing his expertise into every day life. And though he’s a boffin, his passion is for artisan and farmhouse cheeses; the little guys, threatened by industry and policy.

This is good, as one of his many roles is as a consultant for the Food Standards Agency, training environmental health officers on what poses a risk in cheesemaking and what doesn’t. ‘They start off often really not having any idea of where the hazards lie. But we get their hands into the milk and actually get them to produce a cheese which they then take home, and they end up feeling really clued up about the process.’ To the extent that one of the EHO’s on the programme was so inspired, they enrolled in the professional cheesemaking course that Thomas teaches at the School of Artisan Food at Welbeck in Nottinghamshire.

So, can you boil cheese down to biochemistry? Do our cheeses taste the way they do because of science, or is there something ineffable going on? Thomas explains that ‘with the right conditions, you can make any cheese anywhere in the world’. Caerphilly from Philly, brie from Bury. All it takes is the right sort of milk and an understanding of how temperature, moisture, acidity and salinity interact with microbes to produce crumbliness or sweetness or, well, cheesiness. Cheeseology is a chance to pick up some of that understanding and start to get under the rind of this ancient food that we still haven’t quite figured out.

Bottom line, it’s the science of how we perceive one of mankind’s greatest achievements, so really it’s pretty essential knowledge. Why don’t they teach this stuff in schools?

Cheesology, Summerhall, Sat 2 Apr, part of the Edinburgh International Science Festival

Edinburgh Science Festival

Hands-on science for families in venues across the city with a programme ranging from the entertaining to the controversial and, of course, the icky.